Here is the full text of Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool’s address at the Washington National Cathedral memorial service celebrating the life on Nelson Mandela on December 11. A video version is is available on the cathedral’s website.
It was on June 26, 1990 that Nelson Mandela addressed the joint session of the Houses of Congress in this very city of Washington DC. He had just been released after 27 years in prison, but was keenly aware of his own mortality. On that day he said to Congress:
“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 indeed he has passed on. But Nelson Mandela was wrong about his impact and significance in this world.
Yesterday in Soweto, South Africa, 95,000 people braved the rain, millions across the world ignored time zones to share in his memorial, and over 90 world leaders deemed Nelson Mandela more important than the urgent business that confront them on a daily basis. Through their presence and tributes they refused to let Nelson Mandela pass out of existence.
In this country, the United States of America, 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 in the next few years every speech and every prayer; every song and every poem about Madiba, will reconstruct his life, scrutinise 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 that guides our vision, anchors our belief, directs our efforts, defines who we are, and keeps us hopeful in uncertain and confusing times. The world is troubled and its people cry for something better. We are searching for a lost humanity, and are yearning for an elusive solidarity.
We will miss his leadership.
In commemorating his death and celebrating his life, we lament the abundance of eloquence and the paucity of integrity; the presence of words and the absence of communication; the exercise of judgement 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 imbued him with deep faith in his own cause but enough doubt to see truth in others; sufficient confidence in what he stood for but enough empathy to grasp the fear of the other; and while blessed with a wonderful self- esteem he always understood that progress comes 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 were 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 of a nonracial, nonsexist and democratic society, and exhorts us today to construct a caring and gentle and inclusive world.
Such leadership needs courage. It is this leadership that the world desires, a world exhausted by conflict, bankrupted by war, and shamed by intolerance. It looks to Nelson Mandela to show again the virtue of engagement over militarism, morality over legality and the middle ground over the extremes.
The courage that Nelson Mandela exuded was the perfect middle between cowardice and recklessness: the courage to avoid the easy passivity of the coward in the face of evil, as well as to shun thoughtless bravado of the reckless populist.
Such insights come to those who see adversity as the opportunity, not to nurse your injuries, but harness them into a mighty surge 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 disparate and desperate and fearful mass of victims of poverty, hunger, injustice and oppression, but to galvanise 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 is not here to do it himself, and so those who see in his legacy a worthy cause and those who see in his values a guiding light, must rise to the occasion.
The advanced world is seeing the limitations of growth at the hand of never-ending consumption, while the environment bears the brunt thereof. Our country, South Africa, 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 patriarchy deepens proportionately to negate such advances.
We are the inheritors of these struggles. But our enemy will no longer present themselves as they presented themselves to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King:
We must not so much fear the Casspirs of Soweto or the dogs of Alabama, but we must fear the fading of our memory, we must fear forgetting where we come from, who we are , what we stand for and where we must still go;
We must not fear so much the whips of Mitchells Plain or the batons of Selma, but we must fear the disconnectedness and the insularity, the individualism and the selfishness that tells us that poverty is because of laziness, disease because of immorality, and violence because of our genes, and that we are not each other’s keepers;
We must not fear so much the lynchings of the South or the bullets of Sharpeville, but we must fear the deadening of our consciousness and its attendant complacency that will tell us that our struggle is over and the “post racial” dawn has arrived because Nelson Mandela strode the Union Buildings and Barack Obama occupies the White House.
The long walk to freedom is not over. More hills are waiting to be climbed. And Madiba is not here to light the path with his courage and his sacrifice. But we are here!
Each one of us who has been touched by him, inspired by him, and moved by him must continue the long walk. We must confront every psychological, institutional and physical hill until we have won a world that is more equal, where women are respected, where the stranger is not otherised, and where our youth and children can dream again.
Our country South Africa and our people are deeply honoured that you have come to commemorate the death and celebrate the life of our greatest son, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.