Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Obama's Tribute To Nelson Mandela

To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to
President Zuma and members of the government;
to heads of state and government, past and
present; distinguished guests - it is a singular honor
to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any
other. 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
It is hard to eulogize any man - to capture in words
not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but
the essential truth of a person - their private joys
and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique
qualities that illuminate someone's soul. How much
harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved
billions around the world.
Born during World War I, far from the corridors of
power, 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, 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. 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
It was precisely because he could admit to
imperfection - because he could be so full of good
humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burden s
he carried - that we loved him so. He was not a bust
made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood -
a son and husband, a father and a friend. 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.
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
colored 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."
But like other early giants of the ANC - the Sisulus
and Tambos - Madiba disciplined his anger; and
channeled his desire to fight into organization, and
platforms, and strategies for action, so men and
women could stand-up for their dignity. Moreover,
he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests
and injustice carries a price. "I have fought against
white domination and I have fought against black
domination," he said at his 1964 trial. "I've
cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society
in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope
to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an
ideal for which I am prepared to die."
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 hi s
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
chiseled into laws and institutions. He was practical,
testing his beliefs against the hard surface of
circumstance and history. On core principles he was
unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of conditional release, reminding the Apartheid
regime that, "prisoners cannot enter into
contracts." But as he showed in painstaking
negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws,
he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a
larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement, but a skillful politician, the
Constitution that emerged was worthy of this
multi racial democracy; true to his vision of laws that
protect minority as well as majority rights, and the
precious freedoms of every South African.
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. We can never know how much of this
was innate in him, or how much of was shaped and
burnished in a dark, solitary cell. But we remember
the gestures, large and small - introducing his
jailors as honored guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his
family's heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS
- that revealed the depth of his empathy and
understanding. He not only embodied Ubuntu; he
taught millions to find that truth within themselves.
It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to show that you
must trust others so that they may trust you; to
teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring
a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with
inclusion, generosity and truth. He changed laws,
but also hearts.
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 know that like South Africa, the
United States had to overcome centuries of racial
subjugation. As was true here, it took the sacrifice
of countless people - known and unknown - to see
the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America and
South Africa, and countries around the globe, we
cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our
work is not done. The struggles that follow the
victory of formal equality and universal franchise
may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less
important. For around the world today, we still see
children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-
down schools, and few 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, or how they
worship, or who they love.
We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must
act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us
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 who stand on
the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or
cynicism when our voices must be heard. The questions we face today - how to promote
equality and justice; to uphold freedom and human
rights; to end conflict and sectarian war - do not
have easy answers. But there were no easy
answers in front of that child in Qunu. Nelson
Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows us that is true.
South Africa shows us we can change. We can
choose to live in a world defined not by our
differences, but by our common hopes. We can
choose a world defined not by conflict, but by
peace and justice and opportunity.
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 thirty 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. After
this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our
daily routines, let us search then for his strength -
for his largeness of spirit - somewhere inside
ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when
injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best
laid plans seem beyond our reach - think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the
four walls of a cell:
It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul. What a great soul it was. We will miss him deeply.
May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May
God bless the people of South Africa.

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