Thousands cheered on Tuesday when United States President Barrack Obama took to the podium to address the crowd at the memorial for former South African President Nelson Mandela. The same goodwill was however not extended to the incumbent South African President Jacob Zuma when he gave his keynote and closing addresses.
President Goodluck Jonathan and about 90 world leaders, in addition to other celebrities defying the pouring rain, had gathered at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, to pay their respects to the anti-apartheid hero.
Praise came from all sides in the four hour memorial service for Mandela, who died last Thursday at age 95.
Describing Mandela as the great liberator of the 20th century, Obama said, “It is hard to eulogise any man – to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person. 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, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by elders of his Thembu tribe – Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century.
“Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement — a movement that at its start held little prospect of success. Like 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.”
Obama also took a swipe at countries where he considered democracy was not being encouraged. He said, “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 who stand 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; to uphold freedom and human rights; to end conflict and sectarian war — do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child in Qunu.”
Obama, Castro shake hands
In keeping with Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation, Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raul Castro at the memorial. It was an unprecedented gesture between the leaders of two nations that have been at loggerheads for more than half a century.
The only previous known handshake between U.S. and Cuban presidents since the island’s 1959 revolution was at the United Nations in 2000, when Raul’s brother, Fidel, shook the hand of ex-US president Bill Clinton in a chance encounter.
Zuma described Mandela as one of a kind, a fearless freedom fighter, who refused to allow the brutality of the apartheid state to stand in way of the struggle for the liberation of his people.
He also announced the renaming of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where Mandela will lie in state, as the Mandela Amphitheatre.
There were boos from the crowd as Zuma gave his speech and many also gave the thumbs down sign or rolled their wrists in a soccer substitution gesture – expressing their dissatisfaction with South African’s third democratically elected president.
Castro also paid tribute to Mandela as the ultimate symbol of dignity and the revolutionary struggle. Under his brother, Fidel, Cuba was a staunch critic of apartheid, and Mandela had expressed gratitude for that support.
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