Nelson Mandela memorial: Obama — ‘must act’ on justice, peace

Finish what Nelson Mandela started.

That was the message President Obama delivered Tuesday in an electrifying eulogy for Mandela that had the crowd in a South African soccer stadium on its feet and cheering wildly.

PHOTOS: NELSON MANDELA MEMORIAL SERVICE

“We, too, must act on behalf of justice,” Obama declared over thunderous applause. “We, too, must act on behalf of peace.”

“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.”

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Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country, said the revered anti-apartheid leader paved the way for him.

Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities — to others, and to myself — and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today,” Obama said.

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“Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done,” he added. “South Africa shows us that is true. South Africa shows us we can change.”

Before taking the podium, Obama put into practice what he was about to preach by shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro.

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He and British Prime Minister David Cameron later posed in the selfie Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took of her seat-mates.

Obama’s brief but powerful speech struck a chord with many of the South Africans in the stands.

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President Barack Obama delivers his speech during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela, saying, Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities — to others, and to myself — and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama delivers his speech during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela, saying, Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities — to others, and to myself — and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”

“These world leaders should listen to what he said,” said Kagiso Mfikoe, who lives in Soweto Township. “That’s what we need in Africa.”

Shivering from the cold, Zayn Timol said Obama picked up where Mandela left off.

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“It makes us really reflect on what we are doing to solve our problems,” said Timol, who lives in Johannesburg suburb of Fourways. “It’s a message of change.”

Happy Makume said he never thought he’d see a black American President — let alone hear one address a crowd in South Africa.

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“Yes we can!” a grinning Makume declared, repeating the famous slogan from Obama’s first presidential campaign. “This is so exciting for us.”

Mandela died Thursday at age 95, sparking a nationwide outpouring of grief — and a pilgrimage of nearly 100 heads of state to FNB Stadium for the official memorial service.

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“We are very grateful that the nation is coming together in this wonderful way,” said F.W. de Klerk, who was the last white president of South Africa and shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela.

Mandela’s widow, Graca Michel, was there. So was Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. And the two women gave each other a long hung before the ceremony started.

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Also in the crowd was South African actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell, and U2 singer Bono.

Obama led a U.S. delegation that included three out of four living former presidents — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — and a likely presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

RELATED: NELSON MANDELA DEAD AT 95: LEADER WAS ‘FATHER OF DEMOCRACY’

US President Barack Obama said during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela, “South Africa shows us we can change.”

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama said during the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela, “South Africa shows us we can change.”

All but Bush drew loud cheers when their images flashed across the massive screen at the stadium.

South Africa’s deeply unpopular President Jacob Zuma was booed when he was introduced, prompting African National Congress honcho Cyril Ramaphosa to tell the crowd to behave.

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There were many empty seats in the 95,000-capacity stadium, the result of transportation snafus, super-tight security, and the cold, steady rain that sent mourners into the concourses for shelter.

While they were drenched, they were not dispirited.

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They blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horns famous from the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010, and sang songs from the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela led, sometimes replacing the names of freedom fighters like Oliver Tambo or Joe Slovo with Obama.

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

Cosmos Mukonda, who was born in Zambia, said getting soaked to the skin was a small price to pay.

“I am here because of Nelson Mandela,” said Mukonda. “I can walk the streets of this country because of his sacrifice.”

“I would not have the life I have today if it was not for him,” chimed in Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a marketing student who waited outside in the rain and the cold for hours before he was allowed inside. “He was jailed so we could have our freedom.”

White South Africans like Rohan Laird said Mandela set people like him free too.

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

For the next three days, Mandela’s body will lie in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the nation’s capital.

This was once the seat of the racist white government that treated the black majority like second class citizens in their own country.

On Sunday, Mandela will be buried after a state funeral in his home village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape Province.

— With News Wire Services

csiemaszko@nydailynews.com


Nation / World – NY Daily News

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