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Remarks at a State Dinner Hosted by President Jacob Zuma of South Africa in Pretoria, South Africa

June 29, 2013

Well, good evening, everyone. President Zuma, Madam Zuma, distinguished guests: Thank you for your incredible hospitality. When I was last here, as a Senator, my entourage was a little smaller. [Laughter] By that I mean no entourage. [Laughter] The Speaker just helpfully showed me a photograph of me and him from that first visit and pointed out that I had no gray hair in the photo—[laughter]—and that the years had taken their toll.

I also want to thank President Zuma's staff for making my staff feel much better, because this is not the first time that a President has come to the podium without notes—[laughter]—that were supposed to be there. And they are greatly relieved that that does not only happen to them. [Laughter]

Traveling to South Africa the first time was different because part of the thing about not having an entourage is it meant I could go take walks on the streets of Johannesburg and Soweto and Cape Town. And that's how you truly get to appreciate a country: the small interactions with shopkeepers or people who are willing to give you some directions. And I've never forgotten the beauty of this country, the warmth of its people. And tonight I am reminded of that again, and Michelle and I can't thank you enough.

I will not speak long. I have spoken enough today; I know Michelle heartily agrees. [Laughter] I will be giving another speech tomorrow about what this nation represents to me and about the future that I believe that we can build together.

I'm told that there's a word, a concept that has come to define the way many South Africans see themselves and each other. And I'm not sure it translates easily into English. But it's the recognition that, here on Earth, we're bound together in ways that are sometimes invisible to the eye; that there's a basic oneness to our humanity. It's the belief that we can only achieve true excellence and our full potential by sharing ourselves with each other, by caring for those around us. I believe that you call it Ubuntu.

And we feel that spirit tonight. We feel it in the lives of all those, including President Zuma, who endured the prisons and the beatings to end an unjust system so that we might stand here today in a free South Africa. And to President Zuma and to all of you who participated in that struggle, the world will always remember your sacrifice. It's a sacrifice that resonated in the United States in the same way that the U.S. civil rights movement helped to create bonds of solidarity with those in South Africa who were seeking their freedom.

We feel that spirit in the bonds between our two peoples that I think are unique in human history. I would not be here were it not for those freedom fighters, and I certainly would not be here if people weren't willing to fight for the principles that both our countries hold dear.

Now, America's founding principles—our belief that "all men are created equal"—which would find expression in your Freedom Charter, which declared that this nation "belongs to all who live in it, Black and White," with all people "enjoying equal rights and opportunities." In time, the tables turned. Just as I believe that many South Africans were inspired by people like Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, we drew inspiration from your struggle. And your success reminded us that all things were possible, including the improbable idea that a son of an African man might even become an American President.

And we feel that spirit—Ubuntu—tonight because, we must admit, our minds and our hearts are not fully here because a piece of us, a piece of our heart is with a man and a family who is not far away from here. Much has been said about Madiba today. More will be said in the years to come. This evening I'd simply like to close with the words that he turned to so often himself, in that cell, the poem he read to the others in their darkest moments to give them strength:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

And so I propose a toast: To a man who has always been a master of his fate, who taught us that we could be the master of ours; to a proud nation and South Africa's unconquerable soul; and to President Zuma and Madam Zuma for their outstanding leadership in carrying on the great traditions of the South African struggle. Pula!

NOTE: The President spoke at approximately 8:05 p.m. at the Union Building. In his remarks, he referred to Thobeka S. Zuma-Madiba, wife of President Jacob Zuma of South Africa; and Speaker of the National Assembly Max Sisulu of South Africa.

Barack Obama, Remarks at a State Dinner Hosted by President Jacob Zuma of South Africa in Pretoria, South Africa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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