Africa is in mourning along with the rest of the world, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma Chairperson of the African Union Commission, said addressing a capacity and hugely enthusiastic crowd at the FNB Stadium in Soweto at the official memorial for former South African President Nelson Mandela who died last week, aged 95.
Before and during her speech, Cyril Ramaphosa, Deputy President of the African National Congress, main emcee of the four-hour event, attempted to calm the overexhuberant crowd — to little avail.
The biggest ovations of the day came when cameras flashed onto US President Barack Obama seated among the dignitaries, each time his name was mentioned, when he was called on to speak — and many times during his speech.
President Obama began by welcoming Nelson Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel and the Mandela family, President Zuma and the multitude of government representatives, heads of states, celebrity guests and ordinary South African attending.
“It is an honor to be here today to celebrate a life like no other. To the people of South Africa, people of every race and walk of life, the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle, his triumphs your triumphs.” His memory, Obama said, would be cherished.
While it was hard to eulogize any man, it was much harder to do so for “a giant of history who moved a nation towards justice and in the process, influences millions around the world.”
Obama went on to trace Mandela’s life from a boy raised herding cattle to someone who would emerge as a great leader of the 20th — reflecting qualities also seen in Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Obama praised Mandela for holding his country together when it tried to break apart and for his commitment to democracy and rule of war; including and the fact that he stepped down from power after one term.
He said while it was tempting to remember Madiba as an icon, one should resist this. He was a man who insisted in sharing his doubts and his fears, his miscalculations along with his victories. “I am not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Obama pointed out that Mandela was not a bust made of marble; he was made of flesh and blood. He was a man, a husband, a father and a friend. “In the ark of his life we could see a man who left his mark though struggle, persistence and faith,” among other things. “He tells us in our own lives as well.”
Mandela showed us the power of action; taking risks informed by ideals. “He shared the anger born of 1,000 slights and indignities; but like other early giants of the ANC, the Sisulus’ and Tambos’, Madiba disciplined his anger and desire to fight and moreover, accepted the consequences of his actions.
“I have fought against white domination and black domination, Mandela said.”
Mandela had taught the power of action, the power of ideals, the importance of reason, Obama said, citing Madiba’s training as an advocate; his thirst for knowledge; and the fact that he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of the greater goal.
Mandela, Obama said, embodied ubuntu — oneness.
“It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner but the jailer as well. To teach that reconciliation is not a way of ignoring a cruel past but of confronting it. He changed laws and he also changed hearts. For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe, his passing is a time of mourning and a time to celebrate heroic life.
“This should prompt time in us for self-reflection. How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? — is a question I ask myself as a man and as a president.”
Before ending with a hard-hitting political speech and calls for equality and human rights, Obama reminded the crowd of one of Mandela’s famous quotes: “Nelson Mandela reminds us it always seems impossible until it is done.
“We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again but let me say to the young people of Africa and around the world, you too can make a difference. I learned of Nelson Mandela 30 years ago as a student and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities and set me on an improbably journey...”
“Mandela makes me want to be a better man.
“We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of SA.”