Tools

Rains no match as Obama thrills crowd with speech

 l JOHANNESBURG 

US President Barack Obama exhorted the world yesterday to embrace Nelson Mandela’s universal message of peace and justice, electrifying tens of thousands of rain-lashed spectators and promp­ting a standing ovation by scores of heads of state in a South African stadium.

In a speech that received thunderous applause, Obama urged people to apply the lessons of Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in pri­son under a racist regime, embraced his enemies when he finally walked to freedom and promo­ted forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.

“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace,” said Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country. Obama said when he was a student, Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities—to others, and to myself—and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today”.

Police were expecting a crushing crowd at FNB Stadium and had set up overflow points with big screen TVs, but the foul weather and public transportation problems kept many people away. The 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.

Addressing the memorial service for Mandela, who died last Thursday at age 95, Oba­ma pointed out “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.”

Among the nearly 100 heads of state and government were some from countries like Cuba that don’t hold fully democratic elections. On the way to the podium, Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, underscoring a recent warming of relations between Cuba and the US.

In contrast to the wild applause given to Obama, South African President Jacob Zu­ma was booed. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Con-

g­ress, once led by Mandela, remains the front-runner ahead of elections next year.

Some of the dozens of trains reserved to ferry people to the stadium in Soweto, a township which revolted in 1976 against white rule, were delayed due to a power failure. A Metrorail services spokeswoman, Lilian Mofokeng, said more than 30,000 mourners were successfully transported by train.

The mood was celebratory. A dazzling mix of royalty, states­men and celebrities was in attendance.

Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who succeeded Mandela, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French President Fran­cois Hollande and his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together. Uni­ted Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators who sang praise for Mandela, seen by many South Africans as the father of the nation.

“I would not have the life I have today if it was not for him,” said Matlhogonolo Mo­thoagae, a postgraduate marketing student who arrived hours before the stadium gates opened. “He was jailed so we could have our freedom.”

Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said in the stadium he grew up during white rule in a “privileged position” as a white South African and Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.

“His reconciliation allowed whites to be released them­selves,” Lair said. “I honestly don’t think the world will see another leader like Nel­son Mandela.”

Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived amid an enormous logistical challenge of organising the memorial for Mandela, who died on December 5 in his Johannesburg home in South Africa.

Mandela’s widow, Graca Ma-

chel, and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were at the stadium and gave each oth-

er a long hug before the cere­-

monies began. So were actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.

Tuesday was the 20th anni­versary of the day when Mandela and South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, FW de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country. De Klerk, a political rival who became friends with Mandela, was also in the stadium.

Mandela said in his Nobel acceptance speech at the time: “We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born.”

The sounds of horns and cheering filled the stadium. The rain was seen as a blessing among many of South Africa’s majority black pop­u­la­tion.

“In our culture, the rain is a blessing,” said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. “Only great, great people are memorialised with it. Rain is life. This is perfect wea­ther for us on this occasion.”

People blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horn widely used during the World Cup tournament in 2010, and sang songs from the era of the anti-apartheid struggle decades ago.

“It is a moment of sadness celebrated by song and dance, which is what we South Africans do,” said Xolisa Madywabe, CEO of a South African investment firm.

The football venue was also the spot where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the World Cup. After the memorial, his body will lie in state for three days at the Uni­on Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, once the seat of white power, before burial on Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.

Police promised tight security, locking down roads kilometres around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.

John Allen, a 48-year-old pastor from the US state of Arkansas, said he once met Mandela at a shopping centre in South Africa with his sons.

“He joked with my youngest and asked if he had voted for Bill Clinton,” Allen said. “He just zeroed in on my eight-year-old for the three to five minutes we talked.”

• See Page 37

This content requires the latest Adobe Flash Player and a browser with JavaScript enabled. Click here for a free download of the latest Adobe Flash Player.

Express Poll

Are you experiencing the benefits of the $1 billion worth in water projects since 2010?

  • Yes
  • No

Newsletter Sign Up

Subscribe to our FREE Digital Divide Newsletter.
To subscribe enter your email address
For Email Marketing you can trust

Weather

More Weather