Standing on Mandela's shoulders

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President Obama delivers eulogy at Mandela Memorial

The stands at Ellis Park are empty and rain-flecked, the placards lie discarded, the eulogies have evaporated into Johannesburg's leaden skies. As world leaders board their private jets or slide into their first class suites and head home to their own restless constituents, what lessons will they take with them from the life of the man they had criss-crossed the world to mourn?

Not those one would have expected to have been absorbed at a gathering as unprecedented as this. 

As Barack Obama rose to deliver his eulogy, few would have missed the similitude between him and the man he called a 'giant of history': the hope that each man had brought to the lives of the oppressed, their shared African roots, their equivalence in charm, physical stature and oratory skill. The anointing of Obama as Mandela's godson was manifested in the roars of approval directed at him by the gathered crowd. 

People respond well to heroes, especially those people who have had their rights subjugated by others. But Obama, with his swagger and rhetoric, was basking in the reflected glow of Mandela's hard-won glory. His address fulfilled the collective expectation that the almost-saint Mandela be eulogised by a man of comparable stature, but it also afforded him a global platform on which to polish his own ego, to reinforce his importance on the world stage. 

But words of praise for a great man's ability to forgive, to compromise, to see humanity in the enemy, are hollow indeed when the person uttering them fails to follow the example.

As Obama spoke, drones fell and prisoners slept through another night of confinement at Guantanamo Bay. As Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott reflected sorrowfully on Mandela's humanity, three asylum seekers lay freshly dead having tried to reach Australia, and still others prepared for permanent exile from the safety of the Australian soil they had tried so desperately to reach. As Indian President Pranab Mukherjee lauded Mandela's quest for equality, untouchables in his own country suffered the consequences of a crippling tradition of prejudice.

Only the much-maligned South African president Jacob Zuma, vulnerable on home ground, invoked the ire of his people who appreciated the true irony of his tributes. 

The jollity of the occasion — the back-slapping of presidents and former presidents, the taking of selfies, the basking in admiration that had been aimed at Mandela — undermined the very legacy they were here to celebrate. It suggested that eminent leaders had used this solemn occasion to cement and celebrate their own place alongside Mandela in the global political hierarchy. As they stood on the shoulders of this giant, they should have been reflecting instead on how far they would have to go before they could match his exceptional accomplishments. 


Catherine Marshall headshotCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama

 

 

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Yes, Catherine, but Vice-President Li Yuanchao of China and President Raul Castro Ruz of Cuba also spoke. You would know that human rights in these countries are just peachy. Don't forget also that old champion of Africa, Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe. I am saddened that you did not counter balance your list of leaders of oppressive and murderous countries with some of the shining examples I noted above.
marg | 11 December 2013


Mandela's achievements were exceptional and he demonstrated that qualities of true leadership encompass forgiveness, compromise and humanity. Obama will be remembered as breaking through a barrier in the most powerful nation on earth - no mean feat. That he perhaps hasn't yet fulfilled the great hopes placed in him may have more to do with a different circumstance, and different personality traits, than lack of character. He's a different man, but no less talented, than Mandela. I was touched by the exuberance of the South Africans in celebrating the life of their great leader.
Pam | 12 December 2013


With respect Marg, I think that is the point - we are quick to point the finger but rarely ask if our own actions match the ideals we are so quick to praise in others. And this makes the words of the speakers so empty. it was Mandela who lived his words, and took the difficult road to forgiveness, and right. If only ALL leaders tried to do the right thing, not just praise it in others.
Liz | 12 December 2013


Thank you Catherine for writing so clearly and insightfully. I am sure you articulated the thoughts of many of us who watched and wondered how quickly the message and life of such a great man could be used for political point scoring. Hopefully, some world leaders will pause to reflect deeply on what they could do and advocate for changes that will protect, promote and advance those whose voices are not heard, like those you so passionately spoke of. Thank you!
Penny Carroll | 12 December 2013


What a mean spirited critique of Obama's speech. There's a crack in everything and even the drenched Eden Park let some light shine in. So, Obama just went along to further his own political interests? What cynicism. I think Obama would be happy with the sainthood of Mandela as "the sinner who keeps trying". I can't think what he could have said that would have satiated his critics.
Michael Johnston | 12 December 2013


Yes, depending on one's bias, Obama comes with many burdens on his back, like drones and the greatest military/industrial complex and Tea Parties and swaggering rhetoric and elegance but Catherine Marshall seems not to have read the text of Obama's eulogy. It was patently modest, even humble, and deeply respectful .
Peter Kiernan | 13 December 2013


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