Nelson Mandela's funeral: Barack Obama's speech

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 legacy.
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 trying.”
It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection - because
he could be so full of good humor, 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 - 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
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 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 multiracial
democracy; true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well
as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South
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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