President Obama eulogized his personal hero Nelson Mandela Tuesday as “the last great liberator of the 20th century” whose struggle for equality isn’t finished in the United States, South Africa and around the world.
“We know that like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation,” Mr. Obama told tens of thousands of mourners in a rainy soccer stadium in Johannesburg. “Michelle and I are the beneficiaries of that struggle. But in America and South Africa, and countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not done.”
Mr. Obama compared Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon who died Thursday at age 95, to Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and America’s Founding Fathers.
“Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would — like Lincoln — hold his country together when it threatened to break apart,” Mr. Obama said. “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.”
World leaders from about 90 nations attended the memorial service. With the ceremony starting an hour late in a heavy downpour, many of the uncovered seating areas remained empty in the 95,000-seat soccer stadium.
The crowd included former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The Obamas received cheers from the crowd when they were shown taking their seats in the stadium.
In his speech, Mr. Obama said Mandela’s work to fight poverty and injustice still needs to be carried forward by today’s world leaders.
“Around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; we still see rundown schools, we still see young people with few prospects for the future,” Mr. Obama said. “Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.”
The president often used the South African name “Madiba” when referring to Mandela.
“There are too people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” Mr. 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 added, “While I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us.”
Many people in the stadium carried South African flags, or wore the green, yellow and black colors of the African National Congress.
Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Mandela, received a loud ovation as the oversize screens showed her entry into the stadium. Horns known as vuvuzelas, familiar to World Cup soccer fans, could be heard blaring from time to time.
Imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela led the movement that ended legal segregation in 1994 and became South Africa’s first black president.