World Leaders Extol Mandela Before a Crowd of Thousands
International New York Times | 10 Dec. 2013
SOWETO, South Africa — In an outpouring of praise, remembrance and celebration, scores of leaders from around the world, including President Obama, joined tens of thousands of South Africans in a vast rain-swept soccer stadium here on Tuesday to pay common tribute to Nelson Mandela, whose struggle against apartheid inspired his own country and many far beyond its borders.
Huge cheers greeted Mr. Obama as he rose to offer a eulogy that blended a deep personal message with a broader appeal for Mr. Mandela’s values to survive him.
“To the people of South Africa — people of every race and every walk of life — the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” the president said. “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 eulogize 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,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
With his address punctuated by applause, Mr. Obama used Mr. Mandela’s clan name to say: “It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer 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.”
Without identifying anyone by name, Mr. Obama also seemed to criticize despots around the world. “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” he 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.”
Striking a deeply personal note, he went on: “Over 30 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.”
People arriving for the ceremony reached for umbrellas and raincoats as a downpour drenched the stadium and the streets outside. While the mood was celebratory, South Africa’s modern politics also intruded.
There were cheers for Thabo Mbeki, Mr. Mandela’s immediate successor. But the crowd booed and whistled with displeasure when President Jacob G. Zuma’s face appeared on the two large monitors at either end of the stadium.
Mr. Zuma struggled against a barrage of boos, hoots and whistles as he approached the lectern to deliver his remarks. A traditional praise singer sought to enthuse crowd before the South African leader spoke. But the abuse continued, and Mr. Zuma’s face on the huge screens was soon replaced with images of Mr. Mandela as music blasted through the speakers.
After a few minutes, Mr. Zuma began delivering his remarks to a restive but quieting crowd. Many began leaving the stadium, streaming down concrete ramps and into the relentless rain.
Reading from prepared remarks, Mr. Zuma praised Mr. Mandela, saying “there is no one like Madiba. He was one of a kind.”
But, seeking a second term in national elections next April, Mr. Zuma emphasized that Mr. Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, was not about any one leader.
“Mandela believed in collective leadership,” Mr. Zuma said. “He never wanted to be viewed as a messiah or a saint. He recognized that all of his achievements were a result of working with the A.N.C. collective.”
Tuesday’s ceremony drew an unprecedented crowd of global V.I.P.'s, including at least 91 heads of state and government, celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and the singer Bono as well as royalty. The period of official mourning is scheduled to continue this week, with Mr. Mandela’s body lying in state for three days in Pretoria, and a state funeral on Sunday in his remote boyhood village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape region.
Such was the range of those who supported Mr. Mandela in death as in life that the phalanx of dignitaries included notables from Europe to Latin America and China.
In a gesture sure to be dissected for its symbolic and political significance, Mr. Obama shook hands with President Raúl Castro of Cuba, the brother of the longtime American adversary Fidel Castro. Relations between the two countries have been less frosty of late but the Castro brothers remain divisive figures for many Americans, especially Cuban-Americans in Florida.
Some focused on the less celebrated mourners instead.
“This is a day for the people, not the powerful,” said Jay Naidoo, a close confidant of Mr. Mandela and one of his early government ministers. “What Nelson Mandela stood for most of all was solidarity with the downtrodden of the world, and for them he is a symbol of social justice and human rights. That is why I am saying my goodbye from the ranks of the people.”
Shortly before the scheduled start, the stadium was roughly half full, with most people crowding into the highest areas under a roof to shelter from the rain. “Even heaven is crying,” one woman in the crowd declared. “We have lost an angel.”
Many made long journeys, by bus and by train, to reach the stadium. Others gave up waiting for buses that they said never came and instead began the long slog in the rain to the stadium.
In spite of the memorial service, the day was not a holiday and at train stations on the outskirts of Johannesburg most people were going to work as if it were a normal Tuesday. Still, people continued to arrive, bowed against the hard, slanting rain.
As the formal starting time was delayed by about an hour, family members began to arrive, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mr. Mandela’s former wife, and his widow, Graça Machel. President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe was among many African leaders, including those of Nigeria, Uganda, both Congo states and Equatorial Guinea.
The American representation included three former presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush accompanied their husbands.
Britain and France were both represented by current and former leaders. The secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, rose and bowed on the V.I.P. podium to acknowledge applause from the crowd.
Cyril Ramaphosa, a former labor leader who became a wealthy entrepreneur and, more recently, deputy leader of the governing African National Congress, presided over the ceremony, just as he played a central role when Mr. Mandela was released after 27 years in prison in 1990.
“His long walk is over,” Mr. Ramaphosa declared, referring to “Long Walk to Freedom,” the title of Mr. Mandela’s autobiography. “But ours is only beginning.”
“More than 100 countries are represented here today representing easily billions of people around the world,” Mr. Ramaphosa said, adding that the event was “how Nelson Mandela would have wanted to be sent off.”
“He was our teacher and our mentor and never gave up on us for our failures,” Mr. Ramaphosa said. Repeatedly Mr. Ramaphosa appealed to some in the crowd to stop booing political figures of whom they did not approve.
The national memorial service came 20 years to the day after Mr. Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, who negotiated the demise of Afrikaner power, traveled together to Oslo to receive a shared Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. de Klerk was among the dignitaries arriving at the stadium on Tuesday for the event along with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain.
President François Hollande of France planned to travel on from the ceremony to the Central African Republic, where his country has sent troop reinforcements to try to quell unrest, news reports said.