My thoughts on Obama’s speech at Mandela’s Memorial

Barack Obama’s speech at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial service:

….watching it, I got the sense that it was more than just one for the ages. I liked it.

It had all the oratory hallmarks of Obama gold — tactical and extended pausing, eye contact, vocal crescendo peppered with the odd hand gestures. I had forgotten how piercing his eyes were, he seemed almost emotional at times — drawing long breaths as if to contain emotion at one or two points. He seemed quite moved.

These are my highlights and lowlights from his speech:

1. “..your democracy is his cherished legacy.”

It is, but the same sentiments have not been carried on by successive Governments. I feel there is an ever growing sense that Mandela’s legacy will always be referred to as the ‘good old days’; which is evidence enough that Mandela’s vision has not materialised fully enough for people to emulate an optimism for the future. However, Mandela is proof that an idea can survive, and the South African people can bring it about, inspired by his memory.

2. “It is hard to eulogize any man – to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person – their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. 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.”

This is fantastic imagery. A giant of history. A larger than life, gentle and watchful father figure. Someone that everyone knows; an exceptional figure. Obama goes on to liken him with Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln.

3. “ Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait.”

I loved this line. It gives a hint that there is still some integrity in politics. That nobility and vision are not lost. They just have to ascend the cloud of globalisation, and to an extent, racial, gender and sexual orientation based inequalities. It is also a powerful line when you consider his history; he literally rose from the farm, to a prison to the highest office in the land. He experienced all kinds of politics — tribal, activist/revolutionary, prison and eventually reformation politics. He knew himself and he knew his ‘enemies’ and how the world around him functioned in intimate detail, which is what made him incredible.

4. ” He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood – a son and husband, a father and a friend. That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith.”

Mandela stood down after 5 years as President, after more than 30 tumultuous years fighting, being in jail and the achieving the outcome he desired with all his being, he just wanted to be an ordinary man again – a father, grandfather and friend. In his later life he did not relish the spotlight, the same cannot be said for some contemporary politicians. Your origins must be a place where you are happy to return after you have had your 15 minutes of fame. Or 30+ years.

5. “Certainly he shared with millions of black and colored South Africans the anger born of, “a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments…a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.” “

“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, but they are no less important. For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-down schools, and few 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, or how they worship, or who they love.”

I liked these lines because activism needs to be encouraged in our world, to prove Gen Y and all others haven’t been mentally sedated by technology. There are battles, but some wars are yet to be one. As Baroness Thatcher said, “Sometimes you must fight a battle more than once in order to win it.”

6. “..he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price.”

Someone please tell this to Julian Assange.

7. “Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. 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. We can never know how much of this was innate in him, or how much of was shaped and burnished in a dark, solitary cell…….. It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well; to 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, generosity and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.”

His death is a great opportunity for self reflection, not just for South Africans, and humanity in general.

8. “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….. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done. South Africa shows us that is true. South Africa shows us we can change. We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes…”

Two great men. One great idea.


I watch too much Doctor Who. No regrets.

9. “We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. “

It’s the truth. The world is very different now, but good can still be done.
People power is the unexplored bomb of change yet to have its fuse sparked.
But we are so lucky to have experienced Nelson’s life, to have his legacy in our hearts and his fight in our minds. He is one pebble in a pond, but the ripple effects of his existence can create a rushing river.

10. “He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without force of arms, he would – like Lincoln – hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. 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….”

“…like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took the sacrifice of countless people – known and unknown – to see the dawn of a new day. 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.”

The comparisons to the US made me a little uneasy. America and South Africa are very different places. It kind of felt like he was talking up America as a perfect example of how things should be, when Barack is enduring some serious political struggles of his own and only has a short time to deliver. But he has kept the largest economy in the world going — just. His political struggles will also define his Presidency like Mandela, and his charisma is his distinguishing feature. He’ll be remembered fondly regardless. They kept their countries together in the face of deep crises. One must fight a battle more than once in order to win.

Other lowlights:
Seeing Jacob Zuma sitting next to Ban Ki Moon (head of the United Nations)

The crowd weren’t behaving. They were just being restless, there wasn’t much silent respect paid in some parts. Whenever Barack stopped talking, it was just seen as a chance to whoop and cheer.

“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.”

It was a lowlight knowing who he was talking about. Robert Mugabe and a selection of other African and world leaders. Some just use Madiba and his name as a political tool, instead of emulating his philosophies and actions. Complacency is dangerous, and it is easy. Speak up, make your voice heard!

Hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing.
Send me your thoughts on twitter! @politicsinkicks


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s