JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Celebrating one of his personal heroes, President Barack Obama on Tuesday praised Nelson Mandela as the last great liberator of the 20th century, urging the world to carry on his legacy by fighting inequality, poverty and discrimination.
At a memorial service in Johannesburg, Obama compared the former South African President to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
“Nothing he achieved was inevitable,” Obama said fo Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95. “In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, persistence and faith. He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well.”
The President also stressed his belief that in the fight for human rights and equality, including LGBT rights, people must press forward while he acknowledged significant achievements in those rights.
“Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love.”
Calling himself a beneficiary of Mandela’s struggle, Obama traced the influence that Mandela’s story has had on his own life, disclosing that he asks himself how well he’s applied Mandela’s lessons to himself as a man and as president.
He said in the U.S., South Africa and around the world, people must not allow progress that’s been made to cloud the fact that more work must be done.
“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. 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, referring to Mandela by his traditional clan name.
The crowd at the half-filled stadium erupted in applause each time Obama’s name was mentioned or his image was shown on the screen. Dozens gathered below the box seats where Obama and other U.S. presidents sat, waving and snapping pictures of the leaders.
In a statement released to reporters, the White House said Obama did meet with members of Mandela’s family during the memorial service, including Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and expressed condolences on behalf of the American people.