News Column

Obamas, Bushes Attend Mandela Funeral

December 10, 2013

Merle David Kellerhals Jr., AllAfrica

President Obama
President Obama (file photo)

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are leading a U.S. delegation that includes three former American presidents to attend a national memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on December 10.

The White House announced that the Obamas are being accompanied by former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, on Air Force One, while former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter are traveling separately to South Africa.

George H.W. Bush is not able to attend the memorial service. A spokesman said the 89-year-old former president is no longer able to travel long distances, according to news reports.

The American leaders will join about 90 other world leaders at the memorial service being held in Johannesburg's 90,000-seat soccer stadium. A formal state funeral will be held on December 15 in Mandela's ancestral hometown of Qunu in the Eastern Cape province.

Nelson Mandela died December 5 at his home in Johannesburg, surrounded by his family, South African President Jacob Zuma said. He was 95.

"Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa -- and moved all of us," Obama said at the White House December 5. "His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings -- and countries -- can change for the better."

Obama referred to Mandela's well-known clan name, Madiba, more than once in addressing the man who fought for democracy and social justice in the African nation.

After being imprisoned for 27 years for his struggle to end apartheid, Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994. Apartheid was the system of racial segregation in South Africa that lasted from its enactment in 1948 until it was officially abolished in 1994.

Obama, who became America's first African-American president in 2009, said his very first political act was to protest against apartheid. Both Obama and Mandela were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, though Obama acknowledged that his own challenges "pale in comparison to those faced by President Mandela," Obama presidential senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said in an interview before Obama traveled to South Africa.

"I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears," Obama said.

"And, like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him," the president added.

Obama and Mandela met only once in person, in 2005 in Washington when Obama was a U.S. senator. A photo from that meeting hangs in Obama's personal office at the White House, which shows a smiling Mandela sitting on a chair as Obama reaches down to shake his hand. A copy of the photo also hangs in Mandela's office in Johannesburg, according to an Associated Press news report.

During a visit to South Africa as president, Obama was unable to meet Mandela because Mandela was hospitalized. Obama did meet with members of Mandela's family and he also visited Robben Island, standing with his family in the cell where the anti-apartheid leader spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. Over the years Obama spoke with Mandela by telephone.

Copyright United States Department of State. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (

Original headline: Obama, Three Former U.S. Presidents to Attend Service for Mandela

Source: Copyright United States Department of State. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (

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