Braving a springtime downpour in a Johannesburg stadium, President Barack Obama joined other national leaders to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela – the South African political leader and former president who has garnered the admiration of much of the world outside of South Africa. Millions of people watched the memorial via television or internet, while the stadium where the proceedings took place appeared be only two-thirds full.
Introduced as “son of Africa,” Obama took the stage to thunderous applause and a standing ovation at the FNB stadium in the South African capital. He urged that the world should apply the lessons he said were embodied in the life of Mandela, to whom he repeatedly referred as “Mandiba.” The United States was also represented by former president William Clinton and George W. Bush.
Saying that Mandela was his inspiration as a university student and nascent community organizer, Obama said "We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace," while adding Mandela "woke me up to my responsibilities -- to others, and to myself -- and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today."
The leaders of some 100 countries were present at the memorial, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. Speaking to the continuing struggle for freedom represented by the life of Mandela, Obama said “…around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without 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, and how they worship, and who they love. That is happening today. “
Having already spoken to Mandela’s efforts at national reconciliation after his release from prison and ascent to power, Obama addressed the failings of some of the countries represented on the dais at the memorial. “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. 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.”
Obama was seen to shake hands with Raúl Castro, the leader of Cuba. The government of Cuba still does not allow fully democratic elections and presumably would be among the countries Obama criticized just minutes later during his speech. A commentator on CNN, however, said that Obama’s greeting of the Cuban dictator should not be misunderstood. Even so, some observers have noted a thaw in the relations between the US and Cuba. Normally, a meeting between a US president and Cuba’s leadership is carefully avoided by US officials. Raul Castro and brother Fidel have been widely accused for serial killings and imprisonment of political opponents, following their coming to power in 1960.
Obama was also seen to slightly bow to the Cuban president, who is of a shorter stature than Obama. Obama made similar waves when he shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2009. The bow to Castro has been compared by some to instances when Obama appeared to bow to the king of Saudi Arabia and to the Emperor of Japan.
Obama was also seen to kiss the cheek of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, a former radical who now leads one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
Also in the stadium was former South African president F.W. de Klerk, with whom Mandela shared the Nobel Prize for Peace. The day of the memorial was also the twentieth anniversary of the awarding of the Norwegian prize to the former rivals for having sought to bring peace to South Africa. In accepting his Nobel prize, Mandela said 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."
Cuban President Raul Castro said that “Humanity cannot respond its colossal challenges…without the concentrating the efforts of every nation,” as was fostered by Mandela. For Castro, Mandela was a “supreme example” of “revolutionary struggle” as a “prophet of unity and reconciliation,” who knew how to lead his people “in the battle against apartheid and the way towards a new nation.” Castro, the son of a Spanish immigrant and plantation owner said “Cuba has African blood” and that his country had fought “for liberty and to put an end to slavery.” It is for this reason, said Castro, that the “Cuban people have a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa.”