CAPITOL HILL — Leaders of the U.S. Congress held a ceremony Thursday celebrating the life, legacy and values of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former South African President Nelson Mandela on the occasion of his 95th birthday.
A colorful ensemble of traditional South African singers, dancers and drummers danced their way into Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, where a large group of U.S. lawmakers, civil rights leaders and members of the African Diplomatic Corps were gathered.
House Speaker John Boehner thanked the Congressional Black Caucus for organizing the event, and paid tribute to Nelson Mandela for keeping his humility and faith through 27 years in prison and his long struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
"At times it can almost feel like we are talking about an old friend," said Boehner, who called Mandela beloved in the halls of Congress. "And the reason for that I think is scarcely a week, a day goes by without us pointing to Mandela as an example."
Democratic Party Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who led anti-apartheid protests and was a leader in the California movement to divest state pension funds from South African companies — which became a national divestment movement — paid tribute to Mandela's decades of sacrifice, calling him "the most significant historic figure in the world in the past 100 years."
Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell called Mandela a very rare individual.
"Rarer still is a leader who can directly challenge an established order, upend nearly every convention of a society, and still find a way to establish himself as a unifying figure," he said.
Mandela has spent more than a month in a South African hospital for a lung infection, though family members and doctors said Thursday they are encouraged by his progress.
Ebrahim Rasool, South African ambassador to the United States, said there can be no doubt that Mandela will leave a lasting legacy of standing up for the oppressed all over the world.
"Even today, as the angels wrestle with his soul, he refuses to pass simply out of human existence," Rasool said. "It is reported that he is watching television with his headphones on."
The audience of dignitaries came alive when musicians from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz played Hugh Masekela's "Bring Him Back Home."
Members of Congress took turns reading short passages from Nelson Mandela's own words from different phases of his life, and recalled that he spoke to a joint session of Congress twice, inspiring Democrats and Republicans alike.