Obama leads praise of ‘last great liberator’

US president delivers rousing address that wins the crowd’s undiluted approval

President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to speak to crowds at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

President Barack Obama waves as he arrives to speak to crowds at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Wed, Dec 11, 2013, 01:00

Former South African president Nelson Mandela was the last great liberator of the 20th century, US president Barack Obama told his state memorial service here yesterday.

In a rousing address that alone among 15 speeches at the service won the undiluted approval of the crowd, Mr Obama first of all thanked the people of South Africa “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,” said Mr Obama.

Describing Mr Mandela as “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,” continued Mr Obama, “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.  

‘Constitutional order’
“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.’


‘Flesh and blood’
“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 . . . 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.”

And in remarks that may have made uncomfortable some national leaders with whom he shared the platform, Mr 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 who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

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