WASHINGTON >> Counting himself among the millions influenced by Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama today mourned the death of the anti-apartheid icon with whom he shares the distinction of being his nation’s first black president.
“He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages,” Obama said in a somber appearance at the White House.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” he continued. “And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.”
Mandela died earlier Thursday at 95. He had spent much of the year in and out of the hospital, and his illness prevented a meeting with Obama when the U.S. president visited South Africa this summer.
Still, the former South African president’s legacy influenced nearly every aspect of Obama’s trip. Obama, along with wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha, made an emotional visit to Robben Island, standing quietly together in the tiny cell where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. Obama also met privately with members of Mandela’s family.
The president is likely to travel to South Africa for Mandela’s funeral, though a trip has not yet been announced. Other former U.S. presidents and dignitaries are also likely to attend.
Obama’s political rise has drawn inevitable comparisons to the South African leader. Both are Nobel Peace Prize winners and the first black men elected to lead their countries.
However, the two men met in person only once, a hastily arranged meeting in a Washington hotel room in 2005 when Obama was a U.S. senator. A photo of the meeting hangs in Obama’s personal office at the White House, showing a smiling Mandela sitting on a chair, his legs outstretched, as the young senator reaches down to shake his hand. A copy of the photo also hung in Mandela’s office in Johannesburg.
The two presidents did speak occasionally on the phone, including after the 2008 election, when Mandela called Obama to congratulate him on his victory. The U.S. president called Mandela in 2010 after the South African leader’s young granddaughter was killed in a car accident. Obama also wrote the introduction to Mandela’s memoir, “Conversations With Myself.”
Mandela had already shaped Obama’s political beliefs well before their first encounter. As a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, Obama joined protests against the school’s investments during South Africa’s apartheid era. In 1981, Obama focused his first public political speech on the topic.
“It’s happening an ocean away,” Obama said, according to a retelling of the story in his memoir “Dreams From My Father.” ”But it’s a struggle that touches each and every one of us. Whether we know it or not. Whether we want it or not.”
Here is the full transcript of Obama’s comments, provided by the White House:
“At his trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela closed his statement from the dock saying, ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have 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.’
“And Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal, and he made it real. He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today, he has gone home. And we have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us — he belongs to the ages.
“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. His journey from a prisoner to a President embodied the promise that human beings — and countries — can change for the better. His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or our own personal lives. And the fact that he did it all with grace and good humor, and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections, only makes the man that much more remarkable. As he once said, ‘I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life. My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. 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. 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.
“To Gra’a Machel and his family, Michelle and I extend our deepest sympathy and gratitude for sharing this extraordinary man with us. His life’s work meant long days away from those who loved him the most. And I only hope that the time spent with him these last few weeks brought peace and comfort to his family.
“To the people of South Africa, we draw strength from the example of renewal, and reconciliation, and resilience that you made real. A free South Africa at peace with itself — that’s an example to the world, and that’s Madiba’s legacy to the nation he loved.
“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.
“For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived — a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice. May God Bless his memory and keep him in peace.”