Good morning. It’s a great honor to be here today to offer a few words about what Nelson Mandela means to my country and to people everywhere.
Nelson Mandela is a great man who faced one of the greatest evils of our time. Apartheid was twisted and it was grotesque. It used the trappings of democracy to try to conceal the reality of racist tyranny. It invoked the teachings of pseudo-science to try to rationalize the brutality of white supremacy. It deployed the preachings of false faith to try to justify the underlying malice of oppression. “Ah, but your land is beautiful,” wrote the South African novelist Alan Paton—and a land of the greatest beauty was scarred by a dictatorship of the greatest cruelty.
Looking back at the sheer reach and perversity of the apartheid regime reminds us of the magnitude of South Africa’s victory. Surely few could have imagined that apartheid’s overlords would have relinquished power voluntarily and peacefully. Nelson Mandela understood the power of words to change minds and the power of peaceful deeds to open hearts. He did not overthrow apartheid by force of arms. He overthrew it by force of example. He was apartheid’s captive but never its prisoner. He never let his jailers make him doubt his own humanity, and he never let himself doubt their own humanity. We should not minimize the impact of global isolation, moral reproach, and economic sanctions—but in the final analysis, apartheid collapsed because Mandela convinced his jailers to surrender the key.
Mandela’s ability to persuade South Africa’s apartheid government to release their grip on power was rooted in his astonishing capacity to quiet the fears of the white minority even as he insisted on the rights of the black majority—to make it possible for the old rulers to become ordinary citizens and for the nation to stand together elated in long lines to cast their first democratic ballots. What makes Mandela more than just a president, more than just the hero of a liberation struggle, is his ability to remember yesterday while focusing on tomorrow—to offer the knowing and embracing forgiveness that transforms the oppressor and lifts up the oppressed.
We live today in an era marred by those who preach division, in lands too often torn by those who see our differences as pretexts for strife rather than sources of strength. But in our unredeemed world, Nelson Mandela continues to embody the politics of truth and reconciliation—not amnesia, not amnesty without reckoning, but an unsparing realization that the humanity all of us share can help us transcend the sins that we commit. We are imperfect creatures; we are capable of immense and unexpected grace as well as vast and unimaginable malice. And so South Africa, once the world’s epitome of racism, has now become its paragon of reconciliation.
Sometimes it takes great leaders to remind us of the truths we hold to be self-evident. Nelson Mandela is such a leader, and we are fortunate to walk the earth in his days. We hope that this day in his honor will remind all our citizens of his towering, healing, and joyful example. When he won his country’s first free election on May 2, 1994, President-elect Mandela called the birth of democracy in South Africa “a small miracle.” It was indeed a miracle, but there was nothing small about it. For that great gift, on behalf of the United States, let me simply say: Madiba, we thank you.
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