World leaders eulogize Mandela – a 'giant of history'

Obama, Castro praise Mandela's legacy at mass memorial service in Soweto on Tuesday

Nelson Mandela was "the last great liberator of the 20th century," U.S. President Barack Obama told world leaders and tens of thousands of South Africans gathered at a mass memorial rally in Soweto on Tuesday. Heads of state and government from across the political spectrum flew to Johannesburg to bid farewell to the South African leader, who died Thursday night — affording the opportunity for an unprecedented handshake between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Obama urged today's leaders to follow Mandela's example.

"We, too, must act on behalf of justice," Obama said. "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 who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard."

Highlighting today's global challenges of promoting equality and social justice and ending conflict, Obama said, "Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done ...  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. We can choose a world defined not by conflict but by peace and justice and opportunity."

Click here for Al Jazeera's coverage of Nelson Mandela's legacy

Obama and Castro met onstage, where both served as orators for the former South African president. Cuba and the U.S. cut off diplomatic ties during the Cold War, and the U.S. maintains an embargo on the island nation — which a majority of Americans feel is a relic of a long-dormant feud.

He has done it again,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “We see leaders representing many points of view and people from all walks of life, all here, united."

Perhaps inspired by the Mandela legacy of bridging political chasms and working with sworn enemies to achieve a political goals, Obama, a second-term president with little to lose in the way of political capital, offered his Cuban counterpart a handshake.

"It is hard to eulogize any man ... how much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice," said Obama, who was introduced to wild cheers at Soccer City stadium in Soweto, where Mandela was reintroduced to South Africa after being released from prison in 1990.

Family friends offered the most intimate praise at the service, including Andrew Mlangeni, who said Mandela “created hope where there was none.” Gen. Thanduxolo Mandela, a relative, added, “He mingled with kings, queens and presidents … (but) at the core, he was a man of the people.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu delivered a brief blessing to close the ceremony in honor of his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and the presidents of Namibia and India also spoke between Obama and Castro, both of whom were met with wild applause from the crowd at the 95,000-person-capacity stadium.

The otherwise disjointed group had one thing in common, as noted by Al Jazeera correspondent Mike Hanna in Johannesburg: All the foreign dignitaries selected were from countries that had once been under colonial rule.

"There is no head of state from the U.K. or the commonwealth speaking at the funeral," he said. "The list of speakers displays South Africa's political orientation away from the West.”

As is inevitable after the death of a politician — however universally beloved — politics crept in. South Africa's unpopular president, Jacob Zuma, was loudly booed as he entered the stadium and again as he approached the microphones to speak.


“He was a fearless freedom fighter who refused to allow the brutal apartheid state to stand in the way of the struggle,” said Zuma, who, like Mandela, served time on Robben Island during apartheid.

Obama's stern rebuke to leaders who "do not tolerate dissent from their own people" was seen by many as a swipe at the authoritarian Castro.

The service, which coincided with U.N. Human Rights Day, was attended by more than 100,000 people, who filed into the stadium and designated spillover areas to pay their respects. A light rain fell throughout the ceremony but failed to dampen the crowd's spirits, with much singing and dancing throughout the proceedings.

"When it rains when you are buried," said African National Congress vice president Cyril Ramaphosa, “it means your gods are welcoming you and the gates of heaven are most probably open as well."

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