Screen shot from South Africa Broadcasting Corporation broadcast of Nelson Mandela’s memorial service

The people of South Africa came together to celebrate the life of former South African president Nelson Mandela. In the rain, tens of thousands entered the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg and were joined by world leaders, celebrities and royals from around the world, who wanted to be there for a memorial service that lasted more than four hours.

President Barack Obama delivered a speech, and he shook the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro. When he arrived after being stuck in traffic, the crowd in the stadium cheered loudly. That is what is likely to dominate the reports on the memorial service, but this exclusive focus on Obama’s role in the memorial should be rejected.

One of the most profound aspects of the memorial service was the dynamic created by the fact that it was taking place in South Africa and not a Western country. Leading the event were proud leaders from South Africa, and presidents or prime ministers of countries with a history of involvement in colonialism against African countries stood by listening. So, here are some of the highlights likely to be glossed over or entirely omitted from US news reports.

Cuban assistance played a key role in bringing about an end to apartheid. In Angola, the country had military instructors that helped train the military wing of the African National Congress, which Mandela co-founded, called Umkhonto we Sizwe or Spear of the Nation (MK). Cuba provided support for those organizing against the regime, who were in exile, as well.

Mandela said in 1991:

I must say that when we wanted to take up arms we approached numerous Western governments for assistance and we were never able to see any but the most junior ministers. When we visited Cuba we were received by the highest officials and were immediately offered whatever we wanted and needed. That was our earliest experience with Cuban internationalism

Therefore, this is why Cuban President Raul Castro was shown so much gratitude during the memorial service and told by Baleka Mbete, the ANC chair, that Castro was “from a tiny island, an island of people who liberated us.”

“Let us pay emotional tribute to Nelson Mandela, the ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice, a prophet of unity, peace and reconciliation,” Castro declared.

“Alongside his comrades in the struggle, Mandela led his people in the battle against apartheid to open his way to a new South Africa, a non-racial and a united South Africa in its quest for happiness, equality and the well-being of all of its children; a nation bent on overcoming the consequences of colonialism, slavery and racial segregation.”

Castro praised the efforts Mandela led to “eradicate poverty” and “reduce inequality” and promote dialogue and cooperation when trying to resolve conflicts.

“Cuba, a country born in the struggle for independence and for the abolition of slavery and whose children have African blood in their veins, has had the privilege of building and fighting alongside the African nations,” Castro said.

I remember at this moment his bond of affection with Fidel Castro, a symbol of the fraternal relations between Africans and Cubans. Fidel said, ‘Nelson Mandela will not go down in history for the 27 consecutive years he spent incarcerated without ever renouncing his ideas. He will go down history because he was capable of cleaning up the poison that such an unfair punishment could have planted there and for his generosity and wisdom which at the time of victory lead with great talent his selfless and heroic people knowing that the new South Africa could not be built on hatred and vengeance.’

ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said after the address, “We thank you for all the support and the help that we continue to get from the people of Cuba during our years of struggle and our countries continue to be joined at the hip in the area of development in a number of ways in the health and other areas.”

Earlier in the memorial service, Andrew Mlangeni, who was imprisoned along with Mandela on Robben Island, gave a speech recounting his history in the struggle against apartheid.

Mlangeni became active with the ANC in the 1950s. He came to learn that Madiba’s greatness stemmed from his humility and his belief in persuasion and respect for political leadership.

“When the doors to peaceful demonstration were barred from the African National Congress and other political organizations, Madiba persuaded the leadership of the African National Congress to take up arms in defense of the right of our people,” Mlangeni said. MK was formed.

Mandela was forced to operate underground and Mlangeni was one of the first to be recruited to MK. In 1962, Mlangeni, along with five others, went to the People’s Republic of China to train and, when Mlangeni returned, he said he was part of the National High Command, which supervised activities of the MK. Mlangeni fulfilled this duty until he was arrested, along with Mandela, and charged with attempting to overthrow the apartheid government through violent means. Both were sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island.

During the interfaith prayer given by a Muslim religious leader, he said of Mandela, “As he stood up to injustice and illegal wars, let us do likewise, even if it is waged by the powerful.” He, too, celebrated how Mandela had stood up for the oppressed.

African Union Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, an anti-apartheid activist who became the first woman to lead the organization in 2012. Dlamini-Zuma recalled that Mandela could be “resolutely firm and stand his ground especially when it came to the defense of the oppressed and the poor.”

Mandela was “part of the ranks of the many Pan-African heroes and heroines whose commitment to the liberation and reanaissance of Africans, to equality and justice remained steadfast throughout [their] lives.” He recognized as early as 1944, when he was a youth militant of the ANC, that South Africa’s struggles were “closely linked to the struggles of oppressed people across Africa and indeed the world.”

In 1962, he was sent by the ANC to mobilize support for the struggle against apartheid from countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, Guinea, Morocco, Mali, Liberia, Senegal and many others. She said, “Wherever he went on our continent, doors were opened.” He got military training and he got support for the struggle.

When the apartheid government banned the ANC, arrested its leaders, Dlamini-Zuma said, “Our continent became home to freedom fighters from across Southern Africa.” This included people from Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Angola and Zimbabwe, which became targets of the apartheid regime for the support for freedom fighters.

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This is what President Barack Obama’s speech lacked, an acknowledgment of the role of African countries and Cuba in bringing about an end to apartheid when the US, United Kingdom, France and other countries would not support the struggle against apartheid.

At no point in Obama’s speech did he openly confront the role the US government played in reinforcing the white government’s apartheid regime against black South Africans. There was no mention of the CIA’s role in having Mandela arrested. Nothing was said about designating him a terrorist and his organization, the ANC, a terrorist organization. Nothing was said about how President Ronald Reagan failed to support economic sanctions.

He was willing to mention US support for apartheid when he spoke to students in South Africa in June, but with millions of people around the world watching this event, he shied away from confronting history.

Selectively, he told the history of Mandela. What stood out was how he was one of the few speakers to recount Mandela’s history, who omitted how he was a leader in the armed struggle against the government.

Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century. Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement — a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice. He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War. Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would — like Abraham Lincoln — hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations — a commitment to democracy and rule of law ratified not only by his election, but by his willingness to step down from power after only one term.

Then, there was this part of Obama’s address:

There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people. And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

One of those leaders, arguably (but not to the extent of some leaders of African countries), could be Obama himself.  He stood by as American security forces, more commonly referred to as police, shut down Occupy encampments that were challenging poverty and inequality. They were no longer comfortable with being complacent or cynical, but, through swift action ordered by mayors across the US, they were pushed back to the margins where powerful leaders, including Obama, prefer to keep them.

South African President Jacob Zuma, booed by his people throughout the memorial service for being corrupt, did not have the easiest time getting through his speech. However, he did note something that Mandela would have wanted people to keep in mind as they remembered him: his achievements were derived from working with the ANC collective, men & women, some he considered to be more capable than him. He said Mandela and the ANC had supported armed struggle because of the “intransigence” of the apartheid government, but it was a means to an end, not an end to a means.

Zuma also read this quote:

True, the struggle will be a bitter one. Leaders will be deported, imprisoned, and even shot. The government will terrorize the people and their people and their leaders in an effort to halt the forward march; ordinary forms of organization will be rendered impossible. But the spirit of the people cannot be crushed…until full victory is won.”
(Address at the Annual Conference of the African national (ANC) Youth League, Bloemfontein, December 1951)

For people watching around the world—and more importantly for South Africans in the stadium, who walked for hours to get to the memorial service and pay respects, Mandela and the ANC’s triumph over the white government is an example of how the spirit of the people can keep fighting until there is victory.

People at the bottom, those who face injustice or the oppressed, they do not need to be told by world leaders or celebrities what to think about Mandela’s legacy. They know because they are the ones who stand to benefit most from continuing the struggles for freedom, equality and justice he fought throughout his life.