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Topics In the News
President Obama Eulogizes Nelson Mandela
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 12/10/13
Last updated on: 12/10/13
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Nelson Mandela. Photograph by South Africa The Good News (CC BY 2.0).

On December 10, 2013, President Obama spoke at the memorial service for his great South African hero Nelson Mandela. Lauding Mandela as a "giant of history" who emerged as the "last great liberator of the twentieth century," Obama compared Mandela to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and presented him as both a man of action and a man of ideas. The President also used the occasion as a teachable moment, reminding the world-wide audience that "we still see children suffering from hunger, and disease; run-down schools, and few prospects for the future. 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."

The speech was, as Scott Wilson of the Washington Post described it, "a celebration and a scolding."

The most moving part of the speech was when Obama celebrated Mandela's understanding of the ties that bind the human spirit. "There is a word in South Africa--Ubuntu--a word that captures Mandela's greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us."

The scolding came when the President observed that "There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard."

One cannot read this scolding without thinking of how, despite the examples of President Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who have been great voices for tolerance and acceptance, Africa has become one of the most intolerant places in the world for glbtq people.

Hence, it is important to remember the contributions to gay rights made by President Mandela and other South African heroes.

As Tina Gianoulis observes in her glbtq.com entry on South Africa, the new South Africa that emerged under the leadership of Mandela owed much to the work of strong gay activists--including Tseko Simon Nkoli (1957-1998)--among the anti-apartheid freedom fighters. "This new Republic of South Africa, comprising nearly 50 million citizens, became the first nation in the world to be founded on a constitution that includes sexual orientation as a protected freedom."

Mandela was President of the African National Congress when it added a gay rights plank to its platform in 1993. Moreover, as Gianoulis notes, in his victory speech after his election as President of South Africa in 1994, Mandela "denounced prejudice and discrimination against gay men and lesbians."

Soon after becoming President, he appointed Edwin Cameron, an openly gay judge, to South Africa's High Court of Appeal.

In 2005, South Africa's Constitutional Court found that the denial of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples violated the country's constitution, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Court did not specify a remedy, but gave Parliament until December 2006 to adopt legislation rectifying the injustice.

Despite opposition from church groups and traditional leaders, the Parliament adopted legislation that both created civil unions and legalized same-sex marriage. On December 1, 2006, South Africa became the fifth nation to legalize same-sex marriage.

A transcript of the President's speech may be found here.

Below is a video of President Obama's remarkable speech eulogizing Nelson Mandela.

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