Commentary: An American President Speaks Movingly About a Global Giant

President Obama skillfully captured the challenge facing a world coming to grips with the death of Nelson Mandela.

Posted: 12/10/2013 10:29 AM EST

It was a tribute to Nelson Mandela that managed to bridge an ocean, cultures and distance and helped bring together the shared, painful experiences of two nations. President Obama’s moving remarks at the memorial service in a Johannesburg stadium represented not just personal reflection but the challenges that are as relevant to South Africans as they are to Americans thousands of miles away.

“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,” Obama said, before a cheering crowd.

“But there were 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,” he said. “South Africa shows that is 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.”

The president took on the challenge of speaking about someone who had affected Obama’s own journey. But he also spoke of Mandela as the man who shaped the freedom movement for a nation in a way that made him a global icon. It was a speech that was at the same time personal and one that struck broad themes of commitment to ideals. It left the audience – in the stadium and far beyond it – with a charge to live their lives in the spirit of the South African leader who died Thursday at the age of 95.

It was done with great skill and timing. In the days since Madiba’s death, there has been a great deal of reflection on his life, some of it bellicose and jarring from conservative voices in the United States and elsewhere. Before the first democratically elected president of South Africa is even laid to rest, these voices have sought to denigrate Mandela as a terrorist and fear monger.

What Obama did – and with such proficiency – was to put in crystal clear perspective the qualities of a man whose death would galvanize heads of state and royalty from nearly 100 nations to pour into Johannesburg on a rainy South African afternoon. Not only were there monarchs and presidents, but there were Mandela’s successors as president, including F.W. de Klerk, the last ruler of apartheid South Africa.

It speaks so powerfully of the life of a man whose life inspired his former fellow prisoners and jailers alike to pay homage to him, a man whose memorial service drew the very heads of the regime that kept him in bondage.

“We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama said, “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.” He then spoke of how the struggles of Mandela in the era of apartheid had shaped his own activism.

“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.”

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(Photo: AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

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