Washington, DC — An address delivered by Ebrahim Rasool, South African ambassador to the United States, to a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, in the National Cathedral, Washington, DC:
It was June 26 in 1990, a few months after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, that he addressed a joint session of the houses of Congress in this very city of Washington, DC. He had just been released, but was keenly aware in his opening paragraph of his speech to Congress, of his own mortality. On that day he said, "It is a fact of the human condition that each shall, like a meteor, a mere brief passing moment in time and space, flit across the human stage and pass out of existence." Nelson Mandela was right about his mortality, for today he is no longer with us, but he was wrong about his impact on and significance in this world.
Yesterday in Soweto, South Africa, 95,000 people braved the rain, and millions of people across the world ignored time zones and jet lag to share in his memorial. Over 90 world leaders deemed Nelson Mandela more important than the urgent business that confronts them on a daily basis.
Through their presence and tributes, they refused to let Nelson Mandela pass out of existence. In this country, this United States, alongside the South African flags around the world, the star-spangled banner flies at half-mast, signifying that in Nelson Mandela, Americans found both a part of their history and a part of their future.
Here too, Americans gather to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela and celebrate his life. Here too, they will not let Nelson Mandela pass out of existence. In the last few days, and over the next few years, every speech and every prayer, every song and every poem about Madiba will reconstruct his life, scrutinize his character, interpret his words, and exhort emulation of his actions as the world acknowledges that Nelson Mandela's values are eternal in time, universal in space, and enduring in every circumstance. Nelson Mandela is not a flitting meteor but a fixed star, a star that guides our vision and anchors our belief and directs our efforts and keeps us hopeful in uncertain and confusing times. The world is troubled, and its people yearn for something better.
We are searching for a lost humanity, and are yearning for an elusive solidarity. We will indeed miss his leadership.
In commemorating his death and celebrating his life, we'll lament the abundance of eloquence and the paucity of integrity, the presence of words in the absence of communication, the exercise of judgment, and the denial of justice. Nelson Mandela understood these subtle distinctions, because he wrestled with them every day of his life. This ability to know himself as the precondition for knowing his people imbued him with deep faith in his own cause, but with enough doubt to see truth in others; with sufficient confidence in what he stood for, but enough empathy to cross over to the fear of the other; and while blessed with a wonderful self-esteem, he always understood that progress comes only from working together.
He therefore belonged to a golden generation of ANC leaders who were militant but not violent, who were radical, but not fundamentalist, and who where revolutionary, but not extreme. The evil of apartheid required militant action, radical change, and a revolutionary movement. Nelson Mandela's ability to navigate such nuanced distinctions salvaged our very humanity in South Africa and created the foundations not only of a nonracial, nonsexist, and democratic society but also one that must be caring, that must be gentle, and in which we are each other's keepers.
Such leadership can only be built on courage. It is this leadership that the world desires. A world exhausted by conflict, bankrupted by war and shamed by intolerance looks to Nelson Mandela to show again the virtue of engagement, dialogue and negotiation over militarism, morality over legality, and the middle ground over extremes. The courage that Nelson Mandela exuded was the perfect middle between cowardice and recklessness. He had the courage to avoid the easy passivity of the coward, as well as to shun the boastful bravado of the reckless.
Such insights come to those who see adversity as an opportunity, not to nurse your injuries, but to harness them into a mighty thing for justice; not to accumulate your grievances, but to transform them into an enduring commitment to human dignity; not to be cowed by the omnipotence of your opponent, but to fortify your belief in the inevitable victory of righteous purpose; and not to despair for the desperate and fearfulness of victims of poverty, hunger, injustice, inequality and oppression, but to galvanize them into a movement of inspired human agents engaged in disciplined action for a common goal.
Madiba cannot be a flitting meteor, he cannot pass out of existence - because he has unfinished business. He's not here to do it himself, and so those who have seen in his legacy a worthy cause and those who see in his values a guiding light, we are called to rise to the occasion. The advanced world is seeing the limitations of growth at the altar of never-ending consumption and the environment is groaning under the burden. Our country South Africa along with so many other countries of the South, especially in Africa, are on the verge of prosperity, but carry still the burden of poverty, disease and poor education. The women of the world, despite advances in education, health, and living standards, may be forgiven for thinking that with every advance comes a proportionate deepening of patriarchy.
We are the inheritors of those struggles, but our enemies will no longer present themselves as they presented themselves to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to Nelson Mandela. We must no longer fear so much the Casspirs of Soweto and the dogs of Alabama; we must fear the fading memory, we must fear forgetting where we come from, who we are, what we stand for, and where we are going. We must not fear the lynching of the south or the bullets of Sharpeville, but we must fear the disconnectedness and insularity, the individualism and the selfishness that tells us that poverty is because of laziness, disease because of immorality, and violence is in our genes. We must not fear so much the whips in Mitchell's Plain and the batons of Selma as the complacency that will tell us that our struggle is over because of a post-racial dawn that arose when Nelson went into the Union Buildings and Barack Obama into the White House. It is not over until God says it is over.
The long walk to freedom is not over. More hills are waiting to be climbed. Madiba is not here to light the path with his courage and his sacrifice. Each of us who has been inspired by him, touched by him, and moved by him must do the long walk. We must confront every psychological institution and physical hill until we have won a world that is more equal: where women are respected, where a stranger is not branded as "the other", and where our youth and children can dream again. Our country South Africa and our people are deeply honored that you have come here today to commemorate the death and celebrate the life of probably our greatest son, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Thank you very much.
Speeches on AllAfrica are edited for length and clarity. Watch the video here.