Obama Urges World Leaders to Carry On Mandela’s Legacy

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama said, “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.” Photographer: Alexander Joe/AFP via Getty Images

Dec. 11 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy for Nelson Mandela that mixed an ode to a personal hero with a critique of national leaders who fall short of the example he set.

Addressing a rain-soaked crowd at a soccer stadium, Obama said Mandela’s death should be an opportunity for everyone, including himself, to reflect on whether they are applying the lessons taught by South Africa’s first black president.

“How well have I applied his lessons in my own life?” Obama asked of Mandela’s work to end apartheid, his 27-year imprisonment, election as president and his reconciliation campaign. “It is a question I ask myself, as a man and as a president.”

Obama’s audience yesterday included world leaders such as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, India’s Pranab Mukherjee, Cuba’s Raul Castro and Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, as well as a delegation of lawmakers and other dignitaries from the U.S. Mandela died Dec. 5 at age 95.

“There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” said Obama, using Mandela’s tribal name.

Solidarity Claim

Aiming next at repressive governments, including Cuba’s, Obama said there are “too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

He told his audience that they must not stay “on the sidelines, comfortable in our complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

Before taking the stage to sustained applause and cheering, Obama shook hands and briefly exchanged words with Castro, a rare interaction between the leaders of two countries that have been at odds for more than five decades.

Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the meeting was unplanned.

“He shook hands with everybody on his way to speak.” Rhodes said in a briefing aboard Air Force One as Obama returned to Washington. The president’s focus was on Mandela, “not on any other political or policy matters.”

Obama also met with members of the Mandela family during the memorial at the stadium in Soweto, a township southwest of Johannesburg. Among them was Mandela’s wife Graca Machel.

Obama’s Inspiration

Obama, 52, the first black U.S. president, has spoken throughout his career about how Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement inspired his first political speech as a college student in 1981, and how Mandela serves as an example for politicians about the merits of perseverance and reconciliation.

While Mandela’s demise had been anticipated for months, Obama didn’t start preparing his remarks until after the South African leaders’ death and after the invitation to speak at the memorial, Rhodes said.

“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,” 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.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Margaret Talev in Johannesburg at mtalev@bloomberg.net; Kevin Crowley in Johannesburg at kcrowley1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net