Thank you and good afternoon.
I am so excited to be here and also deeply honored to represent President Obama and our administration and deeply, deeply humbled to be in the presence of so many moral leaders whom I have seen on television through my life and gotten to know in the last few years and consider the great moral leaders of our own country.
I want to say it’s a great honor to be here with Zindzi Mandela; Madame Zuma, who has done so much to fight for peace and justice for every African child and community; Chairperson Mbete, Minister Nkoana-Mashabane; Ambassador Rasool and so many other outstanding leaders who have stood and fought against apartheid but then also against so many other forms of injustice and inequality in our country and around the world.
I want to thank, in particular, Ambassador Rasool for allowing me to bring, this morning, my 8-year-old son, because it’s not everyday that we have the opportunity to truly understand and honor moral leadership as we do today. And I brought my son because I hope he has the chance to remember this auspicious occasion. I want him to have the opportunity to experience, in some small way, the incredible compassion, humility, determination, and grace that continues to set President Mandela’s example apart from all others in our hearts and in our minds.
This morning, I was reflecting on President Obama’s recent visit to South Africa—a visit that so many here were a part of: chance to visit Robben Island, a chance to speak at a state dinner in Pretoria and to meet with so many amazing leaders from South Africa and across the continent. President Obama told us all multiple times that his own personal commitment to a life of service and the fight for justice was born initially out of his efforts to organize students to fight against apartheid and on behalf of President Mandela while he was in school.
In his toast at a state dinner, President Obama described the concept that’s so familiar to all of you of “Ubuntu,” noting that this is a word that does not translate easily into English but defines the sense that all of humanity is bound together in ways unseen. We don’t often have moments of coming together and respecting Ubuntu as we do in this very special moment here today.
I was just a student when I first had the chance to lay eyes on President Mandela from quite a distance. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan and was at Tiger Stadium when he spoke there, and I saw him on television when he visited a Ford assembly line and spoke to autoworkers in Detroit.
My father had worked at Ford for more than 3 decades; and I noted and was inspired by the fact that [President Mandela] had traveled, as part of his long walk to freedom, to come to this great American city to say thank you to the people of Detroit, to express his love and compassion for people he had never met before but who he knew stood with him. In doing so, he brought tears to the eyes of one student, but that was the easy part; he made assembly line workers melt and Detroiters fall in love.
In that moment, President Mandela, in fact, inspired more than just one high school student to pursue a life of service and commitment of their own. There are millions of people around the world that could share a similar story of being inspired to change the trajectory of their future because they were able to learn from President Mandela’s tremendous example.
I had an opportunity, just once, to meet President Mandela in 2001 when he hosted, as the chair, a meeting of the Vaccine Fund—an effort he had created with America and so many other countries to ensure that every child around the world, no matter what their circumstance of birth, had a chance to seek a healthy life.
And so, today is a great honor to also announce that as part of honoring this special moment, the United States will make a major new commitment to support the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg. We consider it a great honor to be able to contribute to President Mandela’s continued vision of justice for all of God’s children, and I want to thank so many of you here who have worked to help make that possible.
Back in June, on his trip to Africa, President Obama spoke before a gathered audience of thousands in Cape Town at the very university where Robert F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ripples of Hope” speech and noted that it is hard work to follow President Mandela’s example.
He noted, “President Mandela’s life, like Kennedy’s life, like Gandhi’s life, like the lives of all of those who fought to bring about a new South Africa or a more just America, they stand as a challenge to me.” Today, they continue to stand as a challenge to all of us. To my son and his generation, and to the great assembled leaders here today who have already proven that moral leadership can inspire the entire world. Thank you for the honor of being here.
Last updated: March 24, 2016