According to Reuters, a U.S. official implied it was a planned gesture of reconciliation in the spirit of Mandela’s legacy. As Obama walked from his seat to the podium to deliver his eulogy, he stooped briefly to shake Castro’s hand.
The day was marred by climate change. (Forgive me, that’s quite an exaggeration. But it’s true that throughout sub-Saharan Africa weather is increasingly severe as it is becoming at home.) Rain – heavy at times – competed with the aggressive vocalizations of the crowd in the stadium.
Obama was the most widely cheered. In stark contrast, South Africa’s president and his associates were so widely booed and jeered that the proceedings were interrupted.
And in a twist only explicable as South Africa’s growing frustration with Zuma and their increasingly corrupt government, the great and merciless tyrant from next door, Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe, received thunderous applause.
The tributes at today’s Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela were given by arch enemies and celebrated virtually every political system that exists today in the world.
The first speech was appropriately given by UN secretary general Ban. The second speech was given by the AU Commission chairperson.
The third speech, and the first of six world leaders was given by President Obama.
Obama was followed by the president Rousseff of Brazil, Chinese vice-president Li Yuanchao, Namibia president Pohamba, Indian president Mukherjee and Cuban president Castro.
Obama’s speech was indeed grand, as many of his public speeches have been. He began poetically and gently as you would expect from this gentle academic, acknowledging the sadness which in fact may not exist at quite level commensurate with Obama’s speech.
He then moved chronologically through Mandela’s life, linking him with the life ways of Ghandi and King, taking up the shackles of the oppressed.
Ever the equalizer, Obama referred to Mandela’s ascent during the time of “Kennedy and Khruschev” and then veering into the hyperbolic he compared Mandela to Lincoln for holding the country together “when it threatened to break apart” and completely ignoring the fact that Mandela himself had little to do with his country’s profoundly wonderful constitution:
“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.”
Politicians have a clever way of stinging those listening to them (Castro and Mugabe, both of whom lead dynasties of power that have lasted longer than the life span of an average South African).
Obama then spent too long extolling Mandiba’s self-doubt and humility: “ “I’m not a saint,” Obama quoted him, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Politicians rarely praise someone without praising themselves.
Obama then explained Mandela’s greatness in terms of his family and closer friends, again a somewhat tenacious bend of history, as for whatever reason, Mandela’s pre-release relationships were rarely strong or lasting.
In a recurring theme in almost all Obama’s speeches that refer to another individual, and a message that I find tiresome but was not the least tiresome on the South African audience, Obama defined greatness in an individual as something to be manifest in the simplest of men and women: Mandela should be used as model for yourself.
Losing himself momentarily, Obama praised Mandela’s “rebelliousness” only to immediately pull back and remind the audience of his team work.
In what I consider one of his greatest and most revealing lines, and one I see as timely and hopeful, Obama said that Mandela “learned the language and customs of his oppressor so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depended upon his.”
It’s an insightful look into the mirror, and one tempered with humility.
Referring to “Ubuntu” which today mostly refers to a widely used computer operating system which like Linux is mostly free to African users, Obama worked its derivation as “the tie that binds the human spirit.” Non-violence, shared understandings, a sort of political Zen.
I don’t think Obama got it wholly correctly, and he certainly misused it as a lead into complementing Mandela for his work fighting AIDS. This may have been intentional, since it’s widely construed as one of Mandela’s greatest failings, his lack of wholly grasping what AIDS was and what South Africa should have done about it during his time.
Courageously embracing the fact that both Mandela and he above all represent victories in the struggles against racism, Obama said “Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle.”
He then quickly qualified the point that the struggles aren’t over, and while in the same remark he would once again chastise Cuba, Zimbabwe and China for their suppression of human rights, he began instead:
“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.”
That was when I applauded most.
The end of the speech was magnificent, painting a wonderful picture of a wonderful man and ending with the poem Invictus.
Ninety world leaders plus dozens other dignitaries attended the service. Six world leaders sat on the podium and gave eulogies: China and Cuba are communist. Brazil and India are democratic socialist about equally left of U.S. democracy. Namibia like South Africa is squarely democratic, both a bit right of the U.S.
Obama went first among them, and the applause was thundering. It was much less so for the five who followed.
Mandela almost joined the communist party in South Africa during his youth, and much of his training in the 1960s and 1970s was paid for by China in Tanzania. The Indian icon and revolutionary, Mohatma Ghandi, was close friends with the first Secretary-General of the ANC, John Dube. Their lives followed remarkable parallels in South Africa where Ghandi lived an activist life for more than 20 years.
During the days of the 1980s when the ANC was blacklisted as a terrorist organization, Cuba was a vocal and proud supporter. Travel to the west by ANC executives from Tanzania, where most were exiled, was arranged almost always through Havana by Cuba.
One of Mandela’s few progressive initiatives was to develop a trade alliance that included India to the east and Brazil to the west. This successful trade powerhouse is now beginning to wield incredible influence in the world arena. Brazil’s rapid economic growth in many ways mirrors South Africa’s.
South Africa was given stewardship of the German colony of Southwest Africa (later to become Namibia) by the United Nations after the Nazi collapse in World War II. Enormous international pressure on the apartheid regime granted some autonomy to Namibia that allowed apartheid to effectively end there just before it did in South Africa.
But in return for this autonomy, South Africa retained control and assumed sovereignty over Walvis Bay, the only effective port in the country. One of Mandela’s first actions as president was to return Walvis Bay to Namibia.
The fact that a single world leader can command such tribute from such a range of ideologies and traditions is proof in my opinion that there are far better solutions to crises than war and that maybe the difference between these ideologies isn’t really as great as the proponents within each ideology may claim.
But listening to Obama carefully I realized that neither Mandela or he are capable of truly changing history. The gauntlet of demarcating important changes in history must just be too great a tax on the resources of the individual.
Mandela – and Obama – are artists, one revolutionary, the other an organizer. I wholeheartedly subscribe to their shared world view, one of enduring compassion and justice.
But the implementation of Mandela’s and Obama’s dreams must wait for less gentle souls. Judging from the impatience and enthusiasm of the South Africans applauding Obama, that won’t be long.