US President Barack Obama’s Speech at President Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service in Soweto.

January 13, 2024
7 mins read

By Barack Hussein Obama

Tuesday, December 10, 2013.

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 eulogise 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 channelled his desire to fight into organisation,
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

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 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 and 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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