Obama reveals how Mandela inspired him

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United States President Barack Obama talks to Nelson Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, during the state memorial service at the FNB Stadium on Tuesday. Picture: Chris Collingridge

United States President Barack Obama paid tribute to Nelson Mandela at the state memorial service for the South African icon at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Here is an excerpt from his speech...

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.

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 coloured 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”.

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 chiselled into laws and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history.

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.

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 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 30 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.


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