Mandela eulogized as 'last great liberator'
JOHANNESBURG — Amid cheers and song for the prisoner who became peacemaker, President Obama energized tens of thousands of spectators and nearly 100 visiting heads of state on Tuesday with a plea for the world to emulate Nelson Mandela, “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”
Obama's eulogy was the rhetorical highlight of a memorial service in which South Africans celebrated Mandela's life with singing and dancing, often during dignitaries' speeches. Thanks to Mandela, South Africans now live in a robust democracy and were unafraid to boo their president, the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma.
Lashing rain lent a freewheeling aspect to the memorial, with people taking shelter in the stadium's wide hallways, but the foul weather kept many away. The 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.
Obama implored people to embrace Mandela's universal message of peace and justice, comparing the South African to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Mandela spent 27 years in prison under a racist regime but promoted forgiveness and reconciliation when he was finally freed.
“We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama said. “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.”
He hailed Mandela, who died on Thursday at 95, as the unlikely leader of a movement that gave “potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.
“Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century,” Obama said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
Obama's speech was greeted with thunderous applause, with many heads of state and foreign dignitaries giving him a standing ovation.
Obama pointed out that “around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.”
Among the heads of state and government were some from countries such as Cuba and Zimbabwe that don't hold fully democratic elections.
For many in the crowd at the stadium, the memorial offered a chance for a personal, not a political, farewell.
“Mandela was a very humble man, and he gave himself to the world. He sacrificed time with his family for us and for me. It is a privilege to be here, it is a humbling experience,” said 35-year-old Dipolelo Moshe, who works for a marketing company.
Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said he grew up during apartheid in a “privileged position” as a white South African and that Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.
“His reconciliation allowed whites to be released themselves,” Laird said. “I honestly don't think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela.”
A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance.
Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators as he called Mandela “one of our greatest teachers.”
“He taught by example. He sacrificed so much ... for freedom and equality, for democracy and justice,” Ban said.
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, gave each other a long hug before the ceremonies began.
Actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono were among the celebrities paying final tribute.
Symbolically, Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa's last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize. De Klerk, a political rival who became friends with Mandela, was present in the stadium.
In his Nobel acceptance speech at the time, Mandela said: “We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born.”
The rain was seen as a blessing among many of South Africa's majority black population.
“Only great, great people are memorialized with it,” said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. “Rain is life. This is perfect weather for us on this occasion.”
Mandela's body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, once the seat of white power.