With powerful words and deep conviction, President Obama paid tribute to Nelson Mandela at a memorial ceremony Tuesday for the South African leader. The speech was one of the President’s finest.
Speaking at the Johannesburg soccer stadium where Mr. Mandela made his last public appearance three years ago, President Obama stood before world leaders and tens of thousands of South Africans who braved heavy rain. He 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 grasp of the history of South Africa and praised other figures of its liberation. He cited the lessons of Mr. Mandela’s career and his philosophy of reconciliation.
Among the listeners were 90 heads of state, including 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 he shook Mr. Obama’s hand when they met.
Mr. Obama said those in attendance should not just honor Mr. Mandela with their presence but also follow his example in their lives. He cited Mr. 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 Mr. Mandela’s principles to his presidency. He spoke of child hunger and disease, rundown schools, and young people with no prospects for the future.
The President was the best representative his country could have sent. He painted Mr. Mandela as the 20th century’s last great liberator. Those who seek insights into how Mr. Obama might use his final years as President, as well as those who admire great speeches, should examine his words.