An amazing array of world leaders, more than 90 of them, in driving rain flocked into the Johannesburg memorial service for Nelson Mandela, along with tens of thousands of South Africans and millions watching on television around the world. They joined to say goodbye to one of the globe’s greatest leaders of the last century and to celebrate his astounding life.
One of the largest ovations from the crowd was reserved for President Obama, who used his soaring oratory to talk about what Mandela has meant to him personally and to all of us.
“He makes me want to be a better man,” Obama said. “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.”
Obama compared the former South African president to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
“For nothing he achieved was inevitable,” Obama said. “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.”
The occasion was remarkable in many ways—such as when Obama, as if to embody the spirit of reconciliation shown by Mandela, shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro as he made his way down a line of world leaders gathered to honor the anti-apartheid leader. The U.S. has been battling its southern neighbor since the start of the Cold War more than a half century ago.
Though the steady rain made the proceedings rather uncomfortable—and probably contributed to the soccer stadium that holds more than 90,000 people being only half full—some of the attendees said they would not be deterred.
“He spent years in cold seas on an island. I’m sure it was much colder than here today,” Pheko Moatshe, a 36-year-old salesman from Johannesburg, told the Wall Street Journal. “So I can sit in the rain for a man that withstood so much.”
Obama said he had benefited from Mandela’s struggle and that he still applies Mandela’s lessons to himself as a man and as president.
He said in the U.S., in South Africa and around the world, we must not let progress cloud the fact that more work must be done.
“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,” Obama said.
Obama said it was because Mandela could admit to being imperfect that the world loved him and continues to learn from him.
“He was not a bust made of marble. He was a man of flesh and blood,” Obama said.
While Obama was lustily cheered, the crowd booed heartily when South African President Jacob Zuma was introduced. Many in the crowd stood up to make the hand signal used to signify a substitution in soccer, amidst reports that Zuma used more than 200 million rand ($19.4 million) of taxpayers’ money to pay for security upgrades and renovations on his home.
“We voted for him, because we believed in him, but he failed us,” Terror Moloi, 34, a laundry worker from Soweto, told the Bloomberg News. “He’s an embarrassment to the nation.”
Mandela “leaves behind a nation that loves him dearly,” Zuma said. “He leaves the people of the world who embraced him as their beloved icon. He leaves behind a deeply entrenched legacy of freedom, human rights and democracy in our country.”
There were screens set up in three other stadiums in Johannesburg to allow 200,000 people to watch the memorial service. Other world leaders such as Castro, India’s Pranab Mukherjee, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao also addressed the crowd.
Bloomberg News reported the congregation of world leaders rivaled the funerals of John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and Princess Diana in 1997.
“If you go back in history, this will rank up there with the funerals of Princess Diana and JFK,” said Tyrone Seale, chief director at the South African government’s communications department. “This will be an extraordinary event around the world. South Africa is humbled by that.”