Thank you, Mr. President, for convening this memorial to honor Nelson Mandela, a great man, the embodiment of the new South Africa, and a giant on the world stage. While this is a time to remember Mr. Mandela’s many contributions, it is also an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of his country and all its people. As President Obama said in Johannesburg last week, “His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your democracy is his cherished legacy.”
Nothing honors Mr. Mandela’s memory more than the fact that South Africa has become a regional leader, with a vibrant and democratic government and a population dedicated to building a bright and prosperous future for citizens of every race and creed.
We all know the story of Madiba’s long struggle against racism and the indignities imposed by the apartheid system. The bravery and determination of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues has been and remains an inspiration to us all. What is most remarkable, however, is that Mr. Mandela did not just lead one group of South Africans against another. He used his years in prison in a way that few others ever have. Instead of nurturing bitterness and anger, he spent his time in jail learning about the hopes, beliefs and fears of those who had put him there. He thought deeply about the history of the Afrikaner people and so came to understand them. This meant that, when he emerged from prison, he was not only able to negotiate with his former adversaries; he was able to communicate with them in ways that both sides could comprehend; and, most remarkably, he was able in time not only to gain their acceptance, but to lead them. He did this without forgetting anything and with a firm and profound commitment to reconciliation based on truth. In so doing, he brought South Africa together in a way that hardly anyone thought possible. He turned the hard rain of apartheid into a rainbow.
Nelson Mandela was a great political leader, but he was also a teacher and we have all benefitted from his example—Americans included. When Mr. Mandela first visited New York in June of 1990, shortly after his release from the jail on Robbin Island, more than three-quarters of a million people lined the streets to cheer and welcome him. Mayor Dinkins’ reflections on his visit illustrate how this man, coming from a far-away place, was able to reach people of all backgrounds and stations in life by the righteousness of his cause and the power of his dignity.
Many of us remember Nelson Mandela for his ideals. But his legacy is also defined by his commitment to enshrining those ideals in laws and institutions. Therefore, it is very appropriate that we gather here in New York, at the United Nations, to remember Madiba. For here, we are driven not only by ideals, but by the need to translate those ideals into actions that enrich and save people’s lives. To use Mandela’s words, and I quote: “All of us should ask ourselves the question: Have I done everything in my power to bring about lasting peace and prosperity?” Inspired by Mandela’s life and work, we must, as a community of nations, strive continually to answer that question positively through our commitment to human rights, our dedication to fighting poverty, our support for freedom, and our leadership in support of international stability and peace. In that quest, like Madiba, we must never retreat, never tire.
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