The sounds of djembe drums and traditional African music filled the halls of the U.S. Capitol on Thursday as members of Congress, the diplomatic corps and the public ushered in a birthday celebration for former South African President Nelson Mandela.
“Scarcely a week – a day – goes by without us pointing to Mandela as an example,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as he welcomed the crowd. “An example of standing on principle, of loving your neighbor, of extending the reach of freedom.”
Most of the congressional leadership joined Boehner at the ceremony, including House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
But the strongest congressional testimony to Mandela’s life came from California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, an outspoken critic of apartheid in South Africa. Waters participated in a sit-in at the South African consulate in Los Angeles in 1985 while she served as a state assemblywoman, and she attended Mandela’s presidential inauguration in 1994 as part of a U.S. delegation.
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“Today, we celebrate the 95th birthday of the first president of the democratic South Africa,” she said. “But more than that, we celebrate the life, the legacy and the values of a true lifelong freedom fighter.”
Waters quoted Mandela liberally in her remarks and shared her personal interactions with the leader. In 2008, South Africa awarded Waters one of its highest honors given to those outside the country.
The celebration was in the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, where a statue called “Freedom” stood behind the speakers. The Washington-based KanKouran West African Dance Company and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Ensemble performed. Many of the guests – including members of Congress – danced along.
Mandela fought the apartheid movement in South Africa beginning in the early 1940s, when he helped start the African National Congress Youth League. In 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison, where he remained until 1990. Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and a year later was elected president in the nation’s first free elections.
Recently, Mandela has been plagued with lung problems, and he remains at a hospital in the South African capital of Pretoria.
While the international icon may be ailing, Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, said Mandela’s teachings would last forever.
“All over the world, people need his values. They need his legacy,” he said. “Not as a museum piece, but as something real and living that we can use in our everyday lives.”