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President Obama Speaks at Nelson Mandela Memorial

Aired December 10, 2013 - 6:30   ET


BALEKA MBETE, SOUTH AFRICAN POLITICIAN: Our very son of the African soil, President Barack Obama.




Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.

To Graca Machel and the Mandela family, to President Zuma and members of the government, to heads of states and government, past and present, distinguished guests, it is a singular honor to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other.

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 your 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. 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.

Born during World War I, fired from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he was lead a resistance movement, a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.

He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev and reached the final days of the Cold War, emerging from prison without the force of arms, he would like Abraham Lincoln hold his country together when it threatened to break apart, and like America's Founding Fathers, 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 after only one term.


Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it's tempting, I think, to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men but Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait.


Instead, Madiba insisted on sharing with us his doubts and his fears, his miscalculations along with his victories. I am not a saint, he said, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying. It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection, because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens that he carried, that we loved him so.

He was not a bust made of marble. He was a man of flesh and blood, a son and a husband, a father and a friend. And that's why we learned so much from him and that's 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 is possible, not just in the pages of history books but in our own lives as well. Mandela showed us the power of action, of taking risks on behalf of our ideas. Perhaps Mandela was right that he inherited a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness from his father. And we know he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, "a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people," he said.

But like other early giants at the ANC, Sisulus and Tambos, Madiba disciplined his anger and channeled his desire to fight in the organization and platforms and strategies for action, so men and women could stand up for their God-given dignity.

Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.

I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.


I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.


Mandela taught us the power of action but he also taught us the power of ideas, the importance of reason and arguments, the need to study not only those who you agree with but also those who you don't agree with. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls or extinguished by a sniper's bullet. He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid, because of his eloquence and his passion but also because of his training as an advocate.

He used decades of prison to sharpen his arguments, but also to spread his thirst for knowledge to others in the movement. And he learned the language and the customs of his oppressors, so that one day he might better convey to them how their own freedom depends upon his.


Mandela demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough, no matter how right they must also be chiseled in the law and institutions. He was practical, testing his beliefs against the hard surface of circumstance and history. On core principles, he was unyielding, which is why he could rebuff offers of unconditional release, reminding the apartheid regime that prisoners cannot enter into contracts.

But as he showed in painstaking negotiations to transfer power and draft new laws, he was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. And because he was not only a leader of a movement but a skillful politician, the constitution that emerged was worthy of this multiracial democracy, true to his vision of laws that protect minority as well as majority rights, and the precious freedoms of every South African.

And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There's a word in South Africa, "Ubuntu" -- a word that captures Mandela's greatest gift. His recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye, that there's a oneness to humanity, that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us.

We can never know how much of this sense was innate in him or how much was shaped in a dark and solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small, introducing as jailers, honored guests at his inauguration, taking a pitch in a spring-bought uniform, turning his family's heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS, that revealed the depths of his empathy and his understanding.

He not only embodied "Ubuntu", he taught millions to find that truth within themselves. 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 and generosity and truth. He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.

For the people of South Africa, for those he inspired around the globe, Madiba's passing is rightly a time of mourning and a time to celebrate a heroic life.

But I believe it should also prompt in each of us a time for self- reflection, with honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask how well have I applied his lessons in my own life? It's a question I ask myself, as a man and as a president.

We know that, like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice, the sacrifice of countless people, known and unknown, to see the dawn of a new day. Michelle and I are beneficiaries of that struggle.

But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries all around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done. The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before but they are no less important.

For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease. We still see rundown schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future.

Around the world today, men and women are still in prison for their political beliefs and are still persecuted for what they look like and how they worship and who they love, that is happening today!


And so, we, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace.

There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation but passionately resists even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.


And there are too many of us, too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism, when our voices must be heard. The questions we face today, how to promote equality and justice, how to uphold freedom and human rights, how to end conflict and sectarian war. These things do not have easy answers. But there are no easy answers in front of that child born in World War I.

Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows that it's true. South Africa shows we can change. That we can choose a world defined not by our differences but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict but by peace and justice, and opportunity.

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and the young people around the world, you, too, can make his life's work your own.

Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land. And it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself and it 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 a better man.


He speaks to what's best inside us.

After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we've returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength, let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves.

And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell. It matters not how strait the gate, how charged the punishment, the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

What a magnificent soul it was. We mill miss him deeply.

May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. My God bless the people of South Africa.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We'd like to thank president Barack Obama for his comforting words. We now move on --

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The dignitaries all stood and applauded the U.S. president after he finished. The crowd has been on its feet since they entered this morning. But if there's one word that may have summed up the comments from the president, Ubuntu. He used a South Africa word that basically means interconnectedness.

Robyn, that I am, what is it?

ROBYN CURNOW, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I am me because of you. It's a sense of collectiveness, essentially, that we're all in it together.

CUOMO: It really tapped in. The president was very careful. He showed the people here that he knows the story of Nelson Mandela. He recited lots of the highlights of his biography and then he made it about them, and the message of having to carry forward the legacy.

When he said that word, that's going to resonate not just here with the South African people because it's their word but that's a message very much for his constituency back home as well.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He made some very important points about the massively indispensable contribution of Nelson Mandela. He said like Lincoln, Mandela kept this country together in the end, rather than it is integrating. He also said like so many others, Mandela was elected, stepped down, he respected the democratic process. Even though he only did one term, he could have had more, making a clear example to the rest -- many people in this continent who take power and hang on to it forever.

CURNOW: And many of them are sitting here.

AMANPOUR: Indeed they are. Yes.

CURNOW: A comment pointed at them, too.

Learn the lessons of history. And what was it he said. You can hold history in your hearts.


CURNOW: Encouraging people to not forget the lessons or the symbols or the sense of what Mandela taught.

CUOMO: And President Obama had earlier said that Nelson Mandela now belongs to the ages, which is a beautiful sentiment but not his own. Edward Stanton, secretary of the Navy, under Abraham Lincoln used those words when Lincoln was taken from the world.

So an interesting parallel to Christiane's point.

AMANPOUR: Precisely. I think the president truly believes and obviously was referring precisely to those words and sentiment, that this is the same kind of historical figure, that Mandela is the heir to Lincoln.

CUOMO: Now, John King, if I may bring you in here, your take on the president's remarks, what they mean here and what they mean back home.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it was quite fitting for the president at the end to connect his own story to Mandela's story.

But look, when big leaders passed, there's a lot of hyperbole, sometimes great exaggeration at the farewells, the memorial services. Can you imagine a speech in which the leader of a great nation, President Obama in this case, links Mandela -- you see the president there, say something farewells as he makes his way off the stage. He compares a man to Gandhi, Lincoln and to Martin Luther King in one speech. And you into one speech and can keep a straight face as he does so.

Again, it is the singular nature of this event. The president clearly as you mentioned, he knows the biography. He knew it as a student. He knows it as a president and he was trying to make his own little mark on this service, the soggy service, as you see the president making his farewell there.

But to hear a speech where you compare a man to Gandhi, to King and to Lincoln and you do so with no hesitation, tells you everything you need to know about Nelson Mandela.

CUOMO: As the president was exiting there, John, we saw him comforting the widow, Graca Machel, who was here. He paid his respects to people there from the family, and then he exited. Now, obviously, today, it's not about the president of the United States. It's about Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa. Many are inside. There are also those who are outside.

Isha Sesay is obviously outside for us now monitoring.

Isha, what is it like there?

ISHA SESAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Chris, it is quiet and down somewhat outside. And I guess you can blame the terrible weather conditions for the crowd outside. A steady stream of people are leaving the memorial, making their way out of the stadium.

I guess they wanted to come and (INAUDIBLE) here on this very special day, and that they came and witnessed and paid their respects and paid their respects to Nelson Mandela. So a fairly quiet steady stream of people, because to touch on what you and Robyn were referring to, as you talked about the African word of Ubuntu, I am because -- I am because of you are.

This interconnected. I think that very much speaks to why people came today and came to sit in these damp conditions in the FNB, because they are, because Mandela was in his efforts, there is that interconnectedness between Mandela and the people of South Africa, which even though they hadn't seen him in public since 2010, still is very, very strong. There is that sense of intimacy between the people of South Africa and the past president.

And then you see that in the fact that so many people who made their way here, Chris, were wrapped in fabric with Mandela's image on it. They refer to him as Tata, the word for father. He is the father of their nation, to many of them, part of their families and their lives. He changed their lives forever and the course of this country.

It's been a remarkable day here as we've seen the people marking their way into the stadium, singing and dancing, united as one and praising Nelson Mandela for all he did for them and this country, Chris.

CUOMO: All right. Isha, please, keep us informed of anything that happens out there. Let's come back.

And now, Jim Acosta, you're traveling with the president obviously. Let's unpack this Raul Castro moment, OK?

If you weren't watching then, President Obama -- as he approached the podium to speak, there were dignitaries there. One of them is the president Raul Castro. We're trying to run the video for you. He was shaking his hand, as he did. It was brief but it mattered.

What does that matter today?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: In a big unexpected moment. This is not something administration officials were previewing to reporters before President Obama arrived here in South Africa. I think it might have been an insult to the entire dais had he skipped passed the Cuban leader. You know, he's scheduled to speak to day. So if he had just go on passed the Cuban, I don't think that would have gone over well in this audience. And I also this, it was interesting to note during President Obama's remarks, he talked about people who were imprisoned for their beliefs.

So, he does have a political cover when he comes back home, because as Cubans in exile tin the United States, there are still people in that situation down in Cuba.

The other thing that struck me about the president's speech, he was talking about it from a historical perspective, as you mentioned, Chris. But he also made it personal as well, saying that Nelson Mandela makes me, President Obama, want to be a better man. That was another big takeaway I thought from that speech.

CUOMO: And, you know, unfortunately, because of the nature of politics, people will dissect the handshake, not so much that it occurred but what it means. And I do think people need to keep context under control here.

This is about Nelson Mandela's memorial. And if shaking the hand, whether or not the United States and Cuba have good relations or not, Cuba had good relations with South Africa. They've been helpful to the people here fighting in the '80s and they mattered to Nelson Mandela.

So shaking that hand is respect for Nelson Mandela as well. Fair point?

CURNOW: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Absolutely. And it was an ordinary diplomatic gesture. There are all these heads of state.

You can imagine they've all run into each other at some point in the corridors of the United Nations, or at other funerals or other such things. It doesn't mean anything politically. It's simply a gesture.

ACOSTA: And he also embraced the Brazilian president as well.

AMANPOUR: Of course, he's speaking right now, in fact.

ACOSTA: Despite all of those concerns down in Brazil over NSA, which is a big issue down in Latin America.

CURNOW: I also got the sense that he was -- Barack Obama's an old professor and you got the sense that perhaps he was telling people just understand what this man means in history. He was trying to place him in the context of the ages. He still keeps on trying to do that.

To remind people who perhaps didn't know Mandela or are wondering why we're going to wall-to-wall coverage with one guy, I think there's a sense of stop, listen, remember, take notice of what's going on here.

CUOMO: Called him the last great liberator of the 20th century. Those are big words.

CURNOW: Giants of history, (INAUDIBLE). It keeps sort of painting it in the context of centuries.

CUOMO: No question, this is a world leader that had a profound impact on this president. Despite the fact they only met once person to person, every time -- it almost seems as every time President Obama wants to talk about human rights around the world, he comes back to Nelson Mandela.

AMANPOUR: And he talks also about how the job is not yet done. There's property, injustice. There's political oppression that still exists, not just on this continent but around the world. And so, that was very important for him to talk about as well.

ACOSTA: He delivered that message and it had a domestic feel to it as well, talking about schools that need to be fixed up and so forth, the inequality that exists in a lot of communities around the globe.

AMANPOUR: We're just looking at this picture here, which is quite special, because remember, that was when Barack Obama was a senator from Illinois. Mandela was in Washington giving a speech. Obama managed to get to see him, very unusual.

Nelson Mandela didn't really have time for every freshman senator but Obama managed to get to see him. This is obviously a really important moment in Obama's life. He keeps that picture close by. And I think it was a matter of some sadness that he didn't manage to meet Mandela when he became president, given that he's the first black American president.

CUOMO: Right now, just to make it clear, the president of Brazil, President Rousseff, is right now, giving her remarks and having them translated for the audience. She followed President Obama.

If you're joining us now, CNN viewers in the United States and around the world. We're at the top of the hour. We are, of course, covering the memorial for Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

We just heard comments from the U.S. President Barack Obama. When he used the word Ubuntu, a South African term that means I am because you are. That speaks to the interconnectedness Nelson Mandela was all about, the crowd went wild.

We're discussing here, the impact that a message from a black president to this crowd here had in this stadium, but also back home as well.

CURNOW: Absolutely. And I think when we talk about the relationship the Obamas had had with Mandela, it wasn't as personal as the relationship Mandela had the with the Clintons.