World leaders converge in South Africa on Tuesday, December 10, and on Sunday, December 15, to pay their last respects to the greatest African leader that ever lived
| By Olu Ojewale | Dec. 23, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT
IT WAS, perhaps, the biggest gatherings of international dignitaries in recent times. More than 90 presidents and past heads of government joined tens of thousands of South Africans for the memorial service held in honour of former President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela at the First National Bank, FNB, Stadium, Soweto, on Tuesday, December 10.
More than 70,000 sympathisers had defied the unexpectedly cold weather and rain to pay their respects to the country’s first black president at the 95,000 capacity stadium in Soweto. The Stadium was the place where Mandela addressed the country on his release from prison in February 1990, and was the place where he last appeared in public, at the close of the 2010 World Cup, hosted by South Africa.
The occasion afforded the world leaders to draw out lessons of the event and eulogise the global icon. Out of the more than 90 of those leaders, only six were allowed to speak. President Goodluck Jonathan, who led the Nigerian delegation, was not one of them.
In any case, it was President Barack Obama of the United States, who stole the show as his speech was the main highlight of the four-hour memorial ceremony. It was only his speech that had the crowd roaring with approval. His eulogy, which he spiced with personal message of how the Mandela brand had challenged him, was, according to analysts very impressive. The US president described the late former South African president as a “giant of history,” and the last great liberator of the 20th Century. “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… 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,” Obama said.
According to the US president, Mandela had taught the world the power of action and the power of ideas, and that it had taken a man like him to free not only the prisoner but also the jailer. “We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. While I will always fall short of Madiba, Mandela’s clan name, he makes me want to be a better man,” Obama said.
With his address punctuated he said: “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; and 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.”
He also called attention of his audience to Mandela’s remarkable spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. “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,” Obama said.
Without identifying anyone by name, the US president used the speech to hit the conscience of 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. The US president said it would be unlikely to see the likes of Mandela again, but young people all over the world could still make his life’s work their own. He then recalled his own encounter with the name of the sage: “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.”
Perhaps, the spirit of Mandela was at work at the occasion because on his way to the podium, President Obama shook hands with President Raul Castro of Cuba, the brother of the long-time US adversary, former President Fidel Castro. It was an unprecedented gesture from any US president because of the frosty relations between the two countries in the past 50 years.
In his address, Castro paid tribute to Mandela as the “ultimate symbol of dignity and the revolutionary struggle.” He noted that under his brother, Cuba was a staunch critic of apartheid, and Mandela had been thankful for the support.
Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the United Nations, UN, in his speech, said Mandela had “an infectious smile” that “lit up the world,” and that there was “sorrow for a mighty loss and celebration of a mighty life.” According to Ban, “South Africa has lost a hero, it has lost a father… He was one of our greatest teachers. He taught by example. He sacrificed so much and was willing to give up all he had for freedom and democracy.” Other world leaders who delivered eulogies were President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Vice-President Li Yuanchao of China and President Pranab Mukherjee of India.
The occasion was not bereft of politics. As President Jacob Zuma was about to mount the rostrum, the crowd booed and made cat-calls at him. Zuma had to struggle against a barrage of boos and disapproved whistles as he read his speech. In his remarks, the president praised Mandela, saying “there is no one like Madiba. He was one of a kind.”
That notwithstanding, despite the inclement weather, crowds in high spirit still trouped into the stadium in their thousands to pay their last respect. Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the African National Congress, ANC, and master of ceremonies at the memorial, reminded those present that according to African tradition, the rain was a sign of blessing. He challenged the audience to not only mourn and celebrate Mandela’s heroic life but to engage in a period of self-reflection and to “act on behalf of social justice.” Ramaphosa said further: “His long walk is over,” referring to “Long Walk to Freedom,” the title of Mandela’s autobiography. “But ours is only beginning.” According to Ramaphosa more than 100 countries were represented at the memorial thereby “representing easily billions of people around the world.” This made him to conclude that: “He was our teacher and our mentor and never gave up on us for our failures.”
The memorial was graced by family members, including Graça Machel, his widow, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his former wife, children and great grand children. President Robert G. Mugabe of Zimbabwe was among many African leaders, including those of Uganda, both Congo states and Equatorial Guinea. The US 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 also were represented by their current and former leaders.
The official mourning period continued in the week, with Mandela’s body lying in state in Pretoria for three days beginning from Wednesday, December 11. Early on Wednesday, thousands of South Africans started to queue to view the body of their former leader at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was sworn in as president about 20 years ago. Among those who first filed past the coffin were members of his family, former President Thabo Mbeki, his successor in office. A BBC correspondent said that with the crowds streaming into the grounds of the Union Buildings to view Mandela’s body, it was reminiscent of the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.
Mandela died on Thursday, December 5, at the age of 95 and would be buried after a state funeral in his remote boyhood village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape region, on Sunday, December 15.