President Obama told the crowd gathered in a rainy soccer stadium in Johannesburg today that late President Nelson Mandela that he integrated Mandela’s work into his own life.
“Let me say to the young people of Africa and the young people around the world — you, too, can make his life’s work your own. Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me,” Obama said as one of many addresses from world leaders at the memorial service. “It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it 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 a better man. He speaks to what’s best inside us.”
Obama spent the first part of his speech to the South Africans detailing Mandela’s biography.
“Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it’s tempting I think 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,” he continued. “Instead, Madiba insisted on sharing with us his doubts and his fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. ‘I am 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 a husband, a father and a friend. And that’s why we learned so much from him, and that’s why we can learn from him still.”
Obama said Mandela “tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.”
“We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice — the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done,” he said.
“…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 then steered into his campaign theme, noting “South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes.”
The White House pool reporter noted that former President Bill Clinton drew much of the photographers’ attention away from Obama during the event, where the world leader VIPs were actually seated a fair distance away from the stage and the Mandela family. At one point Clinton and former President George W. Bush jointly waved to the excited crowd.
All of the presidents worked the line of fellow dignitaries to shake hands, which included a handshake between Cuban leader Raul Castro and Obama.
The pool report noted that press were placed where could barely see Obama for much of the event, and news organizations were going to have to rely on the official White House photographer for exchanges between the president and world leaders. Some news organizations have recently decided to stop running official White House photos in protest of the limited media access granted by this administration.