President Barack Obama described Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black elected president, as “the last great liberator of the 20th century” and thanked the grieving nation for sharing their beloved former leader with the rest of the world.
Speaking at a rain-soaked memorial service attended by nearly 100 current and former international leaders, Obama said, “It is a singular honor to be with you 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 triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and your hope found expression in his life. And your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.”
Mandela died Dec. 5 at the age of 95 after a long illness. The memorial service kicked off a week of celebrations that culminated with his burial on Dec. 15 in his ancestral village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape region. Flags are flying throughout the country at half-staff.
Coincidentally, the memorial service fell on United Nations Human Rights Day. Obama used the occasion to deliver stern words to leaders who repress their own people yet profess to admire Mandela, whom Obama mostly referred to as Madiba, the former president’s Xhosa tribal name.
“There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” President Obama said. “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 on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”
Like many U.S. civil rights leaders, Obama drew a parallel between Mandela’s struggle for majority rule in South Africa and African-Americans’ struggle to overcome slavery and Jim Crow laws that treated Blacks as second-class citizens.
“We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice – the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle,” Obama said to applause. “But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.”
Mandela, a former amateur boxer, gave his last public speech in the soccer stadium where the tribute was held. Fittingly, the stadium is located in Soweto, a township were Blacks were forced to live under apartheid and where Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu have homes.