The memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela Tuesday was poised to be one of the largest such gatherings in generations.
Illinois Congressman Aaron Schock was among the tens of thousands of world leaders and celebrators gathered in South Africa Tuesday to honor the life of Nelson Mandela.
“It’s a very moving experience to see,” Schock said Tuesday.
The representative for the 18th Congressional District of Illinois led the congressional delegation that traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa to commemorate and celebrate Mandela, a world leader who emerged from 27 years in prison under a racist regime, embraced his enemies when he finally walked to freedom and ushered in a new era of forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.
The nearly 100 heads of state and government attending the Tuesday ceremony included President Barack Obama, Cuban President Raul Castro, French President Francois Hollande, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others.
During the ceremony, President Barack Obama implored celebrators and leaders to carry forward Nelson Mandela's mission of erasing injustice and inequality. He called Mandela "the last great liberator of the 20th century," comparing him to Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
For Schock, it was Mandela's tribute that he said encompassed the magnitude Mandela's influence on the world.
“It struck me that, just as he was able to bring white and black leaders together after his prison term, he brought world leaders together on the same stage who, quite frankly, don’t agree at all on much,” Schock said during a phone interview from South Africa. “You have president Obama who started out the speakers giving very personal testimony about how Mandela inspired him, comparing him to Lincoln and Gandhi, and then it was capped up with President Raul Castro of Cuba.”
And the bringing together leaders of all backgrounds was also emphasized in the congressional representatives from the United States gathered at the ceremony, with Republicans and Democrats joining in the remembrance, Schock said.
“It reminds us that there’s much more that unites us than divides us,” he said. “It’s a really a great group here to be celebrating the life of Mandela on behalf of United States citizens.”
For Schock, his presence at the ceremony had even greater significance.
“Coming from Abraham Lincoln’s district--who helped passed the 13th amendment, who set people free in the United States of America--representing that congressional district and coming to celebrate a man’s life who did just that for his people,” Schock said, “I think that it’s fitting at least for me to represent Illinois at this ceremony.”
Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa's last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country. De Klerk, a political rival who became friends with Mandela, was also in the stadium.
Mandela said in his Nobel acceptance speech at the time: "We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born."
And Schock echoed that hope after witnessing the powerful leader's tribute.
“He asked some of the very people who wronged him to serve in his cabinet, and really focused forward and didn’t focus on the past and seek retaliation and retribution,” he said. “So I think for every American, for every world citizen, you can look at Nelson Mandela and say ‘Who am I to want to retaliate? Who am I to want to seek retribution? Who am I to really complain about any wrong that’s been done against me? Because I don’t think any of us can say we’ve spent 27 years in a prison cell in solitary confinement wrongfully and been able to exit that cell a better man, to lead a nation and to really inspire the world to do great things.”