Nelson Mandela Memorial: Obama Praises Last Great Liberator of 20th Century

President Obama at Tuesday's memorial service for Nelson Mandela
President Obama at Tuesday's memorial service for Nelson Mandela
 Getty Images

JOHANNESBURG -- Celebrating one of his personal heroes, U.S. president Barack Obama praised Nelson Mandela as the last great liberator of the 20th century, urging the world to carry on his legacy by fighting inequality, poverty and discrimination.

At a memorial service in Johannesburg, Obama compared the former South African president to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.

"Nothing he achieved was inevitable," Obama said. "In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, persistence and faith. He tells us what's possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well."

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The crowd at the half-filled stadium erupted in applause each time Mandela's name was mentioned or his image was shown on the screen. Dozens gathered below the box seats where Obama and other U.S. presidents sat, waving and snapping pictures of the leaders.

As if to underscore the spirit of reconciliation that Mandela's life embodied, Obama shook hands with Cuban president Raul Castro as he made his way down a line of world leaders gathered to honor the anti-apartheid leader. It was a rare moment of accord for the leaders of the two Cold War enemies.

Calling himself a beneficiary of Mandela's struggle, Obama traced the influence that Mandela's story has had on his own life, sharing the fact that he asks himself how well he's applied Mandela's lessons to himself as a man and as president.

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He said in the U.S., South Africa and around the world, people must not allow the progress that's been made to cloud the fact that more work must be done.

"We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality," Obama said, referring to Mandela by his traditional clan name.

Extolling Mandela as practical but unyielding on his core principles, Obama said it was because Mandela could admit to being imperfect that the world loved him and continues to learn so much from his example. "He was not a bust made of marble. He was a man of flesh and blood," Obama said.

He said Mandela had changed both laws and hearts, inspiring those around him by reconciling with the jailers who kept him prisoner for 27 years. By trusting others despite the injustices he suffered, Mandela showed that the cruelty of the past must be confronted with truth, generosity and inclusion, Obama said.

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"We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," Obama said. "But let me say to the people of Africa, and young people around the world: You can make his life's work your own."

Joining Obama on the 16-hour trip from Washington for the ceremony were first lady Michelle Obama, former president George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter also attended the memorial service.

In contrast to the wild applause given to Obama, South African president Jacob Zuma was booed. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, remains the front-runner ahead of elections next year.

The weather and public transportation problems rain kept many people away. The 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.

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Some of the dozens of trains reserved to ferry people to the stadium were delayed due to a power failure. A Metrorail services spokeswoman, Lilian Mofokeng, said more than 30,000 mourners were successfully transported by train.

The mood was celebratory. A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance.

Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who succeeded Mandela, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French president Francois Hollande and his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators who sang praise for Mandela, seen by many South Africans as the father of the nation.

"I would not have the life I have today if it was not for him," said Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a postgraduate marketing student who arrived hours before the stadium gates opened. "He was jailed so we could have our freedom."

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Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said in the stadium that he grew up during white rule in a "privileged position" as a white South African and that Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.

"His reconciliation allowed whites to be released themselves," Laird said. "I honestly don't think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela."

Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived amid the enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.

Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were at the stadium, and they gave each other a long hug before the ceremonies began. So were actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.

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Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa's last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country. De Klerk, a political rival who became friends with Mandela, was also in the stadium.

Mandela said in his Nobel acceptance speech at the time: "We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born."

The sounds of horns and cheering filled the stadium. The rain, seen as a blessing among South Africa's majority black population, enthused the crowd.

"In our culture the rain is a blessing," said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. "Only great, great people are memorialized with it. Rain is life. This is perfect weather for us on this occasion."

People blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horns widely used during the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010, and sang songs from the era of the anti-apartheid struggle decades ago.

"It is a moment of sadness celebrated by song and dance, which is what we South Africans do," said Xolisa Madywabe, CEO of a South African investment firm.

The soccer venue was also the spot where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the World Cup. After the memorial, his body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, once the seat of white power, before burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.

Police promised tight security, locking down roads for kilometers around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.

John Allen, a 48-year-old American pastor from Arkansas, said he once met Mandela at a shopping center in South Africa with his sons.
"He joked with my youngest and asked if he had voted for Bill Clinton," Allen said. "He just zeroed in on my 8-year-old for the three to five minutes we talked."

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