(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the life of Nelson Mandela on Tuesday in Johannesburg, South Africa, describing the late South African president as "the last great liberator of the 20th century," and compared him to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
"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," Obama said at the service attended by over 90 world dignitaries in front of tens of thousands of people.
"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.'"
Mandela passed away on Thursday at the age of 95 at his home in Houghton. He had been battling a long illness and had been in and out of hospitals for a year. Current South Africa President Jacob Zuma announced the news to the world live on television later that same day, telling fellow citizens that "our nation has lost its greatest son."
Political and faith leaders from around the world have since paid their respects to the anti-apartheid icon, including Pope Francis. Tuesday's memorial service was attended by Cuban President Raul Castro who shook hands with Obama, Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao and others, Reuters reported.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also attended the service, and described Mandela as "one of the greatest teachers of our time."
Obama has often cited Mandela as an inspiration for his life and political career, and in his speech Tuesday recalled the struggles South Africa's first black president had to go through in his fight for racial equality, including the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner.
"Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement – a movement that at its start had little prospect for success," the U.S. president said.
"Like Dr. 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 the force of arms, he would – like Abraham Lincoln – hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And 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 after only one term."
Obama insisted that Mandela's greatest gift was his recognition that humans are bound together in ways that are "invisible to the eye;" that there is a oneness in humanity; and that it is essential for people to share themselves with others and care for those around them.
"We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But 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," Obama continued.
"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. 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."
The U.S. president concluded his speech by reminding the audience of the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley in which Mandela found inspiration during his time as a prisoner: "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."
Obama's full speech at the memorial service can be read at the official White House website.