Obama thrills crowd as he honours Mandela

US President Barack Obama speaks to crowds attending the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP
US President Barack Obama speaks to crowds attending the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP

US President Barack Obama exhorted the world to embrace Nelson Mandela's universal message of peace and justice, electrifying tens of thousands of rain-lashed spectators and prompting a standing ovation by scores of heads of state in a South African stadium.

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In a speech that received thunderous applause, Obama urged people to apply the lessons of Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison under a racist regime, embraced his enemies when he finally walked to freedom and promoted forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.

"We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace," said Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country. Obama said that when he was a student, Mandela "woke me up to my responsibilities - to others, and to myself - and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today."

Police were expecting a crushing crowd at FNB stadium and had set up overflow points with big screen TVs, but the foul weather and public transportation problems kept many people away.

The 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.

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Addressing the memorial service for Mandela, who died last week at age 95, Obama pointed out that "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."

Among the nearly 100 heads of state and government were some from countries like Cuba that don't hold fully democratic elections. On the way to the podium, Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, underscoring a recent warming of relations between Cuba and the US.

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.

Some of the dozens of trains reserved to ferry people to the stadium in Soweto, a township which revolted in 1976 against white rule, 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."

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," Lair 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 an enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died December 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 gave each other a long hug before the ceremonies began. So were actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.

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 was seen as a blessing among many of South Africa's majority black population.

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

People blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horn that was 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 kilometres around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.

John Allen, a 48-year-old pastor from the US state of Arkansas, said he once met Mandela at a shopping centre 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."

Full text of Obama's remarks

Text of President Obama's remarks at the Nelson Mandela memorial service in Johannesburg, as provided by the White House:

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To Graca Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of state and government, past and present; distinguished guests: It is a singular honour to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any 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 triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.

It is hard to eulogize any man, to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person - their private joys and sorrows, the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone's soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.

A man holds up an image of former South African president Nelson Mandela at the memorial service at the stadium in Soweto. Photo / AP
A man holds up an image of former South African president Nelson Mandela at the memorial service at the stadium in Soweto. Photo / AP

Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement - a movement that at its start held little prospect of success. Like King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed, and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would, like Lincoln, hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. Like America's founding fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations - a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power.

Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela 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."

It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection - because he could be so full of good humour, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried - that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood - a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. 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.

Mandela showed us the power of action, of taking risks on behalf of our ideals. Perhaps Madiba was right that he inherited "a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness" from his father. Certainly he shared with millions of black and coloured South Africans the anger born of "a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moment, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people."

But like other early giants of the ANC - the Sisulus and Tambos - Madiba disciplined his anger and channelled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand up for their dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. "I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination," he said at his 1964 trial. "I've cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

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 understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper's bullet. 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.

Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough; no matter how right, they must be chiselled into laws and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of conditional release, reminding the apartheid regime that "prisoners cannot enter into contracts." But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement, but a skillful politician, the constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy, true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.

Finally, 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. We can never know how much of this was innate in him, or how much of was shaped and burnished in a dark, solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small - introducing his jailors as honoured guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family's heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS - that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu; he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.

For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe, Madiba's passing is rightly a time of mourning, and a time to celebrate his heroic life. But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self-reflection. With honesty, regardless of our station or circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life?

It is a question I ask myself as a man and as a President. We know that like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America and South Africa, and countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not done. The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important. 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. 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.

The questions we face today - how to promote equality and justice, to uphold freedom and human rights, to end conflict and sectarian war - do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child in Qunu. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. 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.

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world: You can make his life's work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities, to others and to myself, and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba's example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest, when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength, for his largeness of spirit, somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach, think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

What a great soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa.

- AP

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