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Obama Calls For Self-Reflection On Mandela's 'Heroic Life'


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. At a soccer stadium in South Africa before a crowd notable for its dancing and for the umbrellas it is holding up against the rain, President Obama is speaking in a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela. He said just a moment ago: The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. And let's listen to a little bit more of the president today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: ...they must also be chiseled in the wall 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 that 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 freedom of every South African.

And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There's a word in South Africa - Ubuntu.


OBAMA: 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 is 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 his jailers as honored guests at his inauguration, taking a pitch in a Springbok uniform, turning his family's heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS - that revealed the depths of his empathy and 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 jailor as well...


OBAMA: 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.

INSKEEP: And we are listening live to President Obama speaking at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

OBAMA: 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.


OBAMA: But in America, and in South Africa, and in countries around the globe, we cannot allow our progress to cloud the fact that our work is not yet done.

PRESIDENT: 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 run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future. Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned 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 of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation but passionately resist 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.

INSKEEP: President Obama speaking today in South Africa, drawing parallels between Nelson Mandela's life struggle and everything from modern struggles in the economy to gay rights to injustice in other countries.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is at the memorial service. And let's bring her up next. And Ofeibea, what has the atmosphere been like there?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: The audience is transfixed. There's been a lot of singing, a lot of noise, a lot of cheering; now everybody here is listening to President Barack Obama. And every so often, when he says something that the South Africans clearly strikes a chord with them, they have been cheering. So this (unintelligible) such a long speech, has clearly, very clearly has struck a chord with South Africans. They are listening intently as President Obama speaks.

MONTAGNE: There's one thing that drew a big cheer, was when President Obama said Michelle and I are beneficiaries of the struggle, the struggle that Nelson Mandela carried on.

QUIST-ARCTON: That was one of the bursts of applause as South Africans clearly associated with that, being most of them the black majority. Or when Nelson Mandela - when President Obama mentioned the word Ubuntu, humanity, something that is so closely associated with the late Nelson Mandela. And there was a huge roar of cheers, support from them.

So South Africans are - they are listening. They are taking on board what President Obama is saying. And they are thanking the United States and the international community for having supported them. It's quite a day here at FNB Stadium, where Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance in 2010 at the World Cup that South Africa hosted so successfully. It's really quite symbolic.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, thank you very much. And of course we'll be staying with you - coming back to you throughout the show.

That's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Johannesburg at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.