Obama Honors Nelson Mandela: ‘His Triumph Was Your Triumph’

President calls on leaders to use Mandela's legacy as a call to action for political and social reform

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Alexander Joe / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a speech during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg to on Dec. 10, 2013.

Dozens of world leaders gathered to honor Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, with President Barack Obama paying tribute to the late South African leader as “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”

Amid steady rain and deafening cheers, Obama compared Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., saying he was, “a giant of history who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.”

The world leaders honored Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, who died Dec. 5 at age 95, at a memorial service in Johannesburg, speaking to tens of thousands gathered in a rain-soaked soccer stadium.

“The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” Obama said, often referring to him by his clan name, Madiba. “His struggle was your struggle; his triumph was your triumph. Your freedom, your democracy, are his cherished legacy.”

And Obama implored people not just to embrace Mandela’s legacy, but to use his example to continue to improve the world.

“There is a word in South Africa — ubuntu — that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us,” Obama said over the roar of the crowd at the mention of ubuntu.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said “South Africa has lost a hero, the world has lost a beloved friend and mentor.

“Nelson Mandela was more than one of the greatest leaders of our time,” he added. “He was one of our greatest teachers. He taught by example.”

Obama was joined in Johannesburg by former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also attended.

“The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before,” Obama said, “but they are no less important.”

Obama also offered a not-so-subtle criticism of authoritarian leaders. “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” he said, just moments after shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, who was among the world leaders on the stage. “There are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

And he recalled being motivated as a college student by Mandela’s fight against apartheid. “While I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better,” Obama said. “He speaks to what is best inside us.”

“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.”

In his own remarks, Castro praised Mandela as the “ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice.”

“As Mandela’s life teaches us, only the concerted efforts of all nations will empower humanity to respond to the numerous challenges that today threaten its very existence,” Castro said.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said Mandela’s stoic determination, patience, and magnanimity reminded us in India of the revolutionary methods of Mahatma Ghandi.”