With powerful words and deep conviction, President Barack Obama paid tribute to Nelson Mandela at the memorial ceremony Tuesday for the South African leader. The speech may have been one of the president’s finest.
Speaking at the Johannesburg soccer stadium where Mandela made his last public appearance three years ago, Mr. Obama stood before world leaders who had traveled far and tens of thousands of South Africans who braved the day’s heavy rain. The president was cheered loudly at his introduction, during his speech and afterward.
“Nothing he achieved was inevitable,” Mr. Obama said of the man known affectionately as Madiba. “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 president showed a firm grasp of the vernacular and history of South Africa and praised other figures of its liberation. He cited the lessons of Mandela’s career and, particularly, his philosophy of reconciliation. Among the listeners were 90 heads of state, including a rogue’s gallery of tyrants such as Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea. President Raul Castro of Cuba was one of those who spoke, and when they met, Mr. Obama shook his hand.
Mr. Obama made the point that those there should not just honor Mandela with their presence, they should also follow his example in their own lives. He cited Mandela’s willingness to take risks in pursuit of his ideals, the most important of which was achieving equal opportunity for the people of his country.
“We, too, must act on behalf of justice," the president said. "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.”
Mr. Obama said he wanted to apply Mandela’s principles in the three years left in his presidency. He spoke of child hunger and disease, run-down schools and young people with no prospects for the future.
Regardless of what Americans may think of Mr. Obama’s policies, on this occasion he was the best representative his country could have sent. His oratorical skills were in top form as he painted Mandela as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Those seeking insights to how Mr. Obama might use his final years as president, as well as those who admire great speeches, should take the time to examine his words.