President Obama's Eulogy of Nelson Mandela: Lessons from Madiba


This morning, tens of thousands packed a Johannesburg soccer stadium for the memorial service to honor Nelson Mandela. The event was attended by South Africans who no longer know "the oppression of one by another," and by world leaders who look to Mandela as an inspiration and model. One of those leaders is President Barack Obama.

President Obama's first political act was inspired by Mandela, when as a young man he participated in a demonstration against apartheid. This morning, Obama eulogized Mandela.

The President pulled out several lessons from Mandela's life that we can all learn from:

     1. Honest, genuine transparency does not undermine us; it strengthens our leadership and reputation

Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. But Madiba himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. “I’m not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection - because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried - that we loved him so.
— President Barack Obama

We tend to think that if we admit weakness or failure, we are damaging the trust others have placed in us, and offering an excuse for others to fail themselves. Instead, Mandela's life shows us that when you are honest about what you are not, people are much more likely to trust who you areWhen you are transparent about your failures, you can also be transparent about your successes and convictions.

     2. We often look for immediate returns on our efforts, but meaningful change requires lasting commitment 

Madiba disciplined his anger; and channeled his desire to fight into organization, and platforms, and strategies for action, so men and women could stand-up for their dignity. Moreover, he accepted the consequences of his actions, knowing that standing up to powerful interests and injustice carries a price. ‘I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination,’ he said at his 1964 trial. ‘I’ve cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’
— President Barack Obama

Resistance to our efforts is not a cause for despair or cynicism; it is a confirmation of the very dynamics our efforts seek to uproot. Not many of us will find ourselves at the center of one of the great injustices of our time as Mandela did, but his steady confidence and steeled spine should give us perspective in our daily struggles. The processes at our jobs, the dynamics of our relationships, the brokenness in our communities--they all exist the way they do for a reason. We must decide what is right, and live in accordance with that truth. 

Even if apartheid continued this very day, Mandela's cause would be no less just, and his fight no less admirable. In the end, our moral responsibility is not to victory (which is never really ours to win), but for our own conduct and convictions.

     3. A fully realized cause includes all tribes and people, not just the enfranchised or disenfranchised

Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa- Ubuntu - that describes his greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be 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. We can never know how much of this was innate in him, or how much of was shaped and burnished in a dark, solitary cell. But we remember the gestures, large and small - introducing his jailors as honored guests at his inauguration; taking the pitch in a Springbok uniform; turning his family’s heartbreak into a call to confront HIV/AIDS - that revealed the depth of his empathy and understanding.
— President Barack Obama

It would have been easy for Mandela to get so wrapped up in the righteousness of his cause--so focused on the divisions of injustice that existed in the present--that his fight would only include some South Africans. What he realized, however, is that after the immediate oppression of apartheid was repealed, South Africans would still have to live together. He understood that victory in his fight would be short-lived if it was not advanced as a victory for all of South Africa.

In our lives, let us never get so stuck in our own silos, so focused on our own tribes and pet issues, that we miss out on the bigger picture. We must never ignore the long-term flourishing of all people--the common good--at the expense of the immediate injustice at hand. We must always keep both in mind. We are each a part of a much greater whole.

What does Mandela's legacy mean to you? What lessons from his life apply to what you're facing today?

*NOTE: You can read President Obama's full eulogy here