HARARE – US president Barack Obama yesterday admonished world leaders co-opting Nelson Mandela’s struggle against oppression yet suppressing opposition and critics in their own countries.
In a powerful and personal speech — clearly acknowledging the links between the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle against segregation in the United States — Obama, the first black US President, said Mandela was evidence that if politicians truly wish to be remembered by history, they first need to simply be good people.
Obama received a massive standing ovation, in sharp contrast to the opprobrium that greeted South African President Jacob Zuma, currently mired in a housing scandal and whose problems have been cast into sharp relief by Mandela’s death.
Zuma was greeted by boos every time his image appeared on the screens in the stadium, with ANC deputy chairman Cyril Ramaphosa, acting as master of ceremonies, appealing to the crowd to show discipline.
In what has been billed as one of the largest gatherings of global leaders in recent history, the US President spoke on how Mandela’s example had inspired him in his own life and career.
Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe was applauded by the vociferous crowd in the half-filled 95 000-seat stadium.
Obama slammed those who embraced Mandela’s struggle against repression yet quashed the opposition and critics in their own countries.
“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,” Obama said.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” he said.
Obama delivered an emotion-laden tribute to Mandela.
“While I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man,” Obama said.
Obama said Mandela emerged as the last great liberator of the 20th Century.
Over the past decade, Mandela has stolen the limelight from Mugabe as an anti-apartheid icon in the region. Reports of a feud between Mandela and Mugabe — two of the continent’s best-known leaders of liberation movements against white domination — have long been whispered.
Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe’s Information, Media and Broadcasting Services minister, this week rebuked the media for making “gratuitous comparisons” between the life of Mandela and other African leaders, in particular Mugabe.
Earlier this week, Mugabe paid tribute to Mandela, describing the South African liberation icon as “a champion of the oppressed”.
“Mr Mandela’s renowned political life will forever remain a beacon of excellence,” Mugabe, Africa’s oldest ruler at 89, said in his first official reaction.
Mandela, the founding father of modern South Africa and its first black leader, died late on Thursday aged 95.
“Not only was he a great champion of the emancipation of the oppressed, but he was also a humble and compassionate leader who showed selfless dedication to the service of his people,” Mugabe said.
“The late Nelson Mandela will forever remain in our minds as an unflinching fighter for justice,” said Mugabe, who early this year criticised Mandela for being too soft on whites after the end of apartheid.
Mugabe’s remarks in a documentary filmed in May confirmed the rift given that he so openly criticised the revered 95-year-old South African leader.
For Mandela, Mugabe represented a type of African independence leader who fought successfully for independence, then drifted toward tyranny by clinging to power.
Mandela did the opposite, assuming the leadership of his nation and then stepping down after one term in office.
Political analysts say Mugabe has been driven into a permanent rage by the adulation heaped internationally on Mandela, an accolade of praise and recognition that he felt was more properly due to him.
Mandela once described Mugabe’s rule as “tragic failure of leadership.”
Coinciding with UN Human Rights Day, the memorial in FNB Stadium was the main scene of a week of mourning for Mandela, revered across the world as a symbol of reconciliation and forgiveness.
“He was more than one of the greatest leaders of our time. He was one of our greatest teachers,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the crowd. “His baobab tree has left deep roots that reach across the planet.”
Obama made history by shaking hands with the Cuban leader Raul Castro ahead of his speech.
He also put aside diplomatic tensions with Brazil over spying allegations by greeting president Dilma Rousseff with a kiss.