South Africa shows us we can change: Obama

10 December 2013

“South Africa shows us we can change”, US President Barack Obama told thousands of mourners at the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on Tuesday, and millions of people around the world watching the event live on television.

“Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done,” Obama said. “South Africa shows us that is true. South Africa shows us we can change. We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.”

Mandela, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 95, made his last public appearance at the same venue, Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium, at the closing of the 2010 Fifa World Cup on 11 July 2010.

On Tuesday, the 94 000-seater stadium was two-thirds full despite torrential rains, as South Africans from all walks of life joined some 70 heads of state and an array of royalty and celebrities for the first major event of a week-long send-off that is set to rival the funerals of JFK, Pope John Paul and Princess Diana.

‘The last great liberator of the 20th century’

Addressing the gathering in the early afternoon, Obama described Mandela as “the last great liberator of the 20th century”, saying it would be tempting to remember him “as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men.

“But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. ‘I’m not a saint,’ he said, ‘unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’

“That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still,” Obama said.

“Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t.

“He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid because of his eloquence and passion, but also his training as an advocate. He used decades in prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.”

Above all, Obama said, Mandela understood “the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa – ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”

Mandela’s passing ‘also a time for self-reflection’

Mandela’s passing was rightly a time both of mourning and of celebration for the people of South Africa and for those he inspired around the world. But it was also, Obama said, a time for self-reflection.

“For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-down schools, and few prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.

“We, too, must act on behalf of justice,” Obama said. “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. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

Addressing himself to young people in Africa and around the world, Obama said that, while “we will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again … you can make his life’s work your own”.

Addressing the people of South Africa, he said: “[T]he world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.”

SAinfo reporter