Building bridges with old foes to honour Mandela's great legacy of reconciliation
Clasping hands with the leader of one of America's oldest geopolitical foes and offering a kiss to another head of government whom his country has just recently antagonised, US President Barack Obama appeared anxious to honour Nelson Mandela's legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation with more than just words at his memorial service in South Africa yesterday.
While having so many world leaders in one place is rare, it wasn't clear how many of them were taking the opportunity to do some discreet diplomatic business.
Mr Obama, however, appeared to seize the moment. As he met a parade of fellow world leaders, he stirred hopes of a possible breakthrough with Cuba after shaking hands with Raul Castro.
Such personal interactions between the two countries have been rare over the more than five decades of frozen ties between them. The only prior example was a handshake between former President Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro at the United Nations in 2000.
Mr Obama's brief cheek-peck was for Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, who shelved a visit to Washington after revelations of NSA eavesdropping on her private communications.
Even Mr Obama's journey to South Africa offered some example of political rapprochement with both his Republican predecessor, George W Bush, on Air Force One's passenger manifest, and with Hillary Clinton, the Democrat who some say is manoeuvring to replace him.
France's Francois Hollande similarly demonstrated his understanding of the symbolism of the moment, walking into the stadium alongside the man he replaced, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Meanwhile, Mr Obama laced his eulogy for Mr Mandela with appeals to countries with records of political repression, which have expressed their declared admiration for Madiba and his campaigning for political and social freedom. Mr Obama named none, but Cuba would surely be among them.
For some, being in the red-carpet section was enough to induce a feeling of awkwardness. Robert Mugabe, the internationally ostracised leader of Zimbabwe, was said to have travelled to Johannesburg only reluctantly. Mr Mandela never made any secret of his disappointment with the path Mr Mugabe took to oppress political opposition in Zimbabwe.
He once told Mr Sarkozy of his Zimbabwean counterpart: "Before I was released from prison, he was the most popular African leader in this area, but when I was released, the media said, 'This is the end of Mugabe from the point of view of popularity'. In fact, he himself did not want me to come out of jail." (© Independent News Service)