By Merle David Kellerhals Jr.
President Obama said on the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela that the man, who struggled for decades to end apartheid and bring democracy and justice to his country, was “one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.”
“He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages,” Obama said late December 5 following the announcement from South African President Jacob Zuma of Mandela’s death.
Nelson Mandela died December 5 at his home in Johannesburg, surrounded by his family, Zuma said. Mandela’s final years were marked by frequent hospitalizations for respiratory problems that had bothered him since he contracted tuberculosis in prison. He was 95.
“Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa — and moved all of us,” Obama said. “His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings — and countries — can change for the better.”
After being imprisoned for 27 years for his struggle to end apartheid, Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994. Apartheid was a system of racial segregation in South Africa that lasted from its enactment in 1948 until it was officially abolished in 1994.
Obama, who became America’s first African-American president, said his very first political act was to protest against apartheid.
“I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears,” Obama said.
“And, like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him,” the president added.
Obama said to the people of South Africa that all Americans draw strength from the example of renewal, reconciliation and resilience that they have made. He said that a free South Africa at peace with itself is an example to the world and is an integral part of Mandela’s legacy to the nation he loved.
Obama spoke directly with President Zuma by telephone on December 5 and expressed his condolences, the White House said. He also reaffirmed the strong and historic partnership between the United States and South Africa.
The South African Embassy in Washington planned to open a book for condolences on December 6 for any Americans to express their feelings on Mandela’s death.
In issuing a national proclamation on Mandela’s death, Obama announced a formal period of respect for his legacy and ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half-staff until sunset on December 9.
Vice President Biden, who is currently traveling in Northeast Asia, said in a statement issued by the White House that Nelson Mandela’s “wisdom and compassion were formidable enough to change the world. First his courage and then his forgiveness inspired us all, and challenged us to do better.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, who is on diplomatic travel in the Middle East, said that “Madiba’s ‘long walk to freedom’ gave new meaning to courage, character, forgiveness, and human dignity. Now that his long walk has ended, the example he set for all humanity lives on. He will be remembered as a pioneer for peace.”
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives John Boehner said that Nelson Mandela “was an unrelenting voice for democracy. Mandela led his countrymen through times of epic change with a quiet moral authority that directed his own path from prisoner to president.”
Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, negotiated the end of apartheid, finding common cause, and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.