There was no doubting who the guest of honor was. Each time his face had appeared on the giant screens in the stadium, the crowd roared with such fervour that, even in the midst of a memorial service, the president and his wife could not repress a smile and acknowledged the masses. When President Barack Obama finally took to the stage, he was introduced as “son of the soil of Africa”. As America’s first black president spoke of South Africa’s first democratically elected lack leader he seemed to have one underlying message for the departed: thank you.
For President Obama, the son of a Kenyan government official who played his own, small role in the administration of a newly independent and free African state, the task was never going to be simple. Mandela is a man who invites, even demands, lofty comparison.
Obama spoke of Mandela in the same category as Ghandi and Dr. King, men who like Mandela were that rare and essential combination of not just moral and intellectual courage, but physical courage as well. Mandela, he said, taught us what was possible “not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.”
Madiba showed us that hard-favored rage can be channelled not just into combat, but into peace as well. His disgust and anger at the inequity of apartheid motivated Mandela to both take up arms against it, and manage its peaceful dismantling.
President Obama spoke of the need to apply Mandela’s principles to our own lives, as we struggle to combat racism, poverty, famine and disease. Though he did not make any comparison, he said that he would always fall short even of the example Mandela left. However, he said, Mandela made him want to be a better man.
There was no apology for America’s long, ignoble record of supporting the previous apartheid regime. However, the fact that the man who was speaking in the capacity of president of the United States is a man who is the son of an African, a man whose first experience of public speaking was to cry out against apartheid at his Los Angeles college, speaks to the change that has taken place not just in South Africa, but in America as well.
Obama ended his eulogy the only way he could: with brevity. He simply said that Madiba would be greatly missed. Indeed he will be missed, not just by his African brothers and sisters, but by all of us who identify with his principles and values. Perhaps the only fitting title we can bestow on him is one of humanity’s greatest, most redoubtable servants.
Watch President Obama deliver his eulogy in the video below.
Hat Tip: Politicus