Obama Honors Mandela: ‘Giant of History’

Photograph by Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

President Barack Obama gives a speech during the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg on Dec. 10, 2013.

What a history.

In a place where one American president attempted to block sanctions against an Apartheid-enforcing government, the sitting American president came to honor the departed liberator of that once-segregated nation and its first black president.

So stood the first African-American president of the U.S., Barack Obama, joining former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter in the stadium at Johannesburg where the late Nelson Mandela is remembered today as one of the world’s great statesmen.

If Ronald Reagan’s veto of U.S. sanctions was overridden in 1986. South Africa’s white government was peacefully overthrown and Mandela seated as president in 1994. Reagan, his close adviser says, later came to regret his action. “I’m sure he did regret it, in fact, I’m certain that he did,” James Baker, Reagan’s chief of staff and treasury secretary, said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” over the weekend, following Mandela’s death at 95.

In a place where U.S. leaders once feared the Communist leanings of a young revolutionary, Obama joined Cuban President Raul Castro in honoring Mandela today. The two briefly met in the rain-soaked stadium at Johannesburg where Obama was speaking just now — seven hours ahead of Eastern time — in remembrance.

“A life like no other,” Obama said of Mandela’s. “The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph… Your freedom, your democracy, is his cherished legacy.”

“It is hard to eulogize any man,” Obama said. “How much harder to do so for a giant of history.”

The horns of South Africa’s World Cup, the Vuvuzela, echoed throughout the First National Bank stadium where world leaders assembled today.

Mandela was “the last great liberator of the 20th Century,” Obama said, noting: Like Ghandi, he led a movement, like Martin Luther King, he fought racial injustice. He endured a brutal imprisonment. Like the founding fathers of the U.S., he “erected” a Constitution “ratified not only by his election, but his willingness to step down from power after only one term.”

“I am not a saint, he said, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying,” Obama said. “He was not a bust made of marble, he was a man made of flesh and blood.”

“Nothing he achieved was inevitable,” he said. “He understood that ideas could not be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by an assassin’s bullet… He used decades of prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge for others in the movement… Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough. No matter how right, they must also be chiseled into law and institutions.”

At the same time, “he was not afraid to compromise for a larger goal,” Obama said. “Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit.”

“We can never know much of this sense was innate in him or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell,” he said. Yet Obama introduced his jailers as “honored guests at his inauguration… It took a man like `Madiba’ to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well.”

Obama and wife Michelle Obama “are beneficiaries of that struggle,” the American president said in closing. “Around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease… Around the world today, men and women are still in prison for their political beliefs, and for who they worship and who they love. That is happening today… So we too must act on behalf of justice.”

“The questions we face today, how to promote equality and justice, how to uphold freedom and hunger rights, how to end conflict and sectarian war, these things do not have easy answers,” Obama said. “Nelson Mandela reminded us that it always seems impossible until it is done…. that we can choose a world not defined by our differences but by our common hopes.”

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