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Remarks of President Barack Obama – As Prepared for Delivery

 

Remembering Nelson Mandela

Johannesburg, South Africa

December 10, 2013

To Graça 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 honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any other.

Obama Mandela Speech

Full text of Obama speech at Mandela Memorial

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.

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 humor, 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 colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…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 channeled 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 chiseled 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 honored 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 thirty 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.

 

Nelson Mandela (right) with Ethiopian colonel and Oromo rights activist Tadesse Birru in 1962.(Aligezeera to day )

What Mandela meant to African activists

by Hassen Hussein @HusseinHxhuss10 December 6, 2013
Nelson Mandela’€™s example holds the promise for an Africa that is at peace with itself
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Tadesse and Mandela
Nelson Mandela (right) with Ethiopian colonel and Oromo rights activist Tadesse Birru in 1962.
 

I came of age in troubled 1980s Ethiopia under the dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, right after a generation attempting to bring about social change inspired by Marxism was thinned out. Few in my generation had any appetite for political activism. Even if some of us managed to shed misgivings about the risks of Africa’s politics, we had hardly any genuine leaders to look up to. Fewer could identify with the plethora of official leaders paraded on national TV, our only window to the world outside.

The Pan-African leaders of prior decades, pioneers in the struggle for independence from European colonialism — figures like Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Leopold Sedar Senghor — were long forgotten, their performances in office falling woefully short of their lofty ideals. The only leaders that social activists of my generation could remotely identify with were in remote hideouts commanding shadowy rebel troops pitted against the armies of the self-proclaimed Big Men of Africa, whose oversize photos clogged billboards and TV screens.

Other leaders — such as Tadesse Birru, the Ethiopian colonel who inducted Nelson Mandela into armed struggle and a man who would later become a founding member of a movement to emancipate his own people, the Oromo of Ethiopia — were either dead or rotting in some derelict prison without ever being charged or granted their day in court. Few looked up to these leaders anyway. For some, their communist ideologies belonged to a bygone era with its cherished ideals long discredited and abandoned. For many others, these figures had failed to make an impression, largely because of the strictly enforced news blackout. ‎

By the end of the 1980s, a handful of former young revolutionaries long imprisoned for their dissident views won their freedom, only to lose it again in the oblivion of protest politics from which they failed to wean themselves. In the early 1990s, a few wily-eyed rebel leaders emerged victorious from their mountain hideouts sporting bushy beards and trendy coats — men such as Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. As quickly as they came, these former freedom fighters went out of favor, proving themselves replicas of the Big Men they helped topple from power.

The image of one man towered above all others: Mandela. Whereas the fame of other leaders rose and fell with the African seasons, Mandela’s endured and transcended generations. Like a good long-term investment, Mandela’s standing appreciated while that of his contemporary African leaders declined or crashed.

Happiest day of our lives

For millions of Africans my age, Mandela’s beaming smile upon his release from Robben Island, the prison where he spent 27 years in solitary confinement, represented the happiest day of our lives. I have since wondered many times what would take a person condemned to life imprisonment to self-assuredly proclaim “I am the captain of my soul” while still in the palm of his jailers.

But we weren’t always sure where Mandela would end up. Some were terrified that he, too, would betray his people and global admirers in a bid to cling to power. By stepping down after one term as president and at the peak of his popularity, Mandela defied expectations and broke the mold of Africa’s Big Men.

At times during my two decades of exile far away from Africa, the stream of bad news from home made it hard to be openly proud of my origins. Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” became highly prized in my cubicle at work. The courage and composure with which he carried himself throughout his long life — in detention and in freedom — helped me take a fresh look at the relationship between my activism for the Ethiopian diaspora community and the people still tethered to Africa’s soil.‎ Not least, his marital troubles with his second wife, Winnie, shortly after his release from prison enabled me to cope with my own divorce. Such is the mark of great leaders: They lead even in their failures.

Mandela’s life story had a profound hold on my life. In 2009, I joined my 70-year-old father and my brother — both onetime prisoners and Oromo freedom fighters — and my U.S.-born 16-year-old daughter to watch “Invictus,” the movie about Mandela’s efforts to steer post-apartheid South Africa out of stormy waters. By the time the movie came to an end, we could not look into each other’s eyes.

Mandela united South Africa with his unique style of leadership deeply rooted in Africa’s grassroots rather than in corrupt institutions born out of the contitent’s colonial legacy. His principled stewardship of the people’s trust, steely determination, indomitable spirit and unbounded optimism connected generations of men and women throughout Africa and the wide world. He was the leader they all wished they had and the person whose example they aspired to emulate.

Africa’s truest son

Inevitably, Mandela has his own share of detractors. There are those who fault him for leaving South Africa’s immense wealth in the hands of the white minority and winning only the trappings of freedom for the black majority. Time will tell if his magnanimity to his former enemies will be vindicated. However, to a continent awash with small men pretending to be its Big Men, few would disagree that Mandela exemplified the true path to greatness. As Africa’s truest son, the adult in the company of aging leaders who stubbornly refused to grow into manhood, he modeled how sworn enemies could become citizens of a common country together experiencing the joys of freedom.

To societies afflicted with civil strife, Mandela pointed the way out by embracing his enemies. Whereas other African leaders would have simply gotten rid of their opponents by demonizing or incarcerating them under trumped-up charges, he won them over through his regal embrace, graceful charm and candid honesty.

To the vanquished, Mandela showed that a principled, negotiated peace and democracy offered better prospects than a victory begotten through unrequited violence. To the continent’s leaders who saw appeasement of global powers as indispensable to govern their countries, he demonstrated the African people’s long desire to see their leaders chart Africa’s path on its own.

Mandela the man is dead. He will surely be missed. But his example will live on, reverberating far and wide as an eternal symbol of Africa’s unfulfilled promise, untapped potential and unexplored wisdom.

Hassen Hussein is an assistant professor at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, a longtime democracy activist and a leader of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.