World leaders and joyous, singing South Africans gathered Tuesday to honor Nelson Mandela
at a Soweto soccer stadium that was two-thirds full amid cold, driving rain.
The crowds twice booed South African President Jacob Zuma, who was to give the keynote address at the service, which started an hour late. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, is the front-runner ahead of elections next year.
President Barack Obama praised Nelson Mandela as the last great liberator of the 20th century, urging the world to carry on his legacy by fighting inequality, poverty and discrimination.
|Nelson Mandela's wake (Video: Reuters)|
"For nothing he achieved was inevitable," Obama said. "In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, persistence and faith. He tells us what's possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well."
Barack Obama makes his way to the service (Photo: EPA)
In a rain-soaked stadium where world leaders gathered to honor the anti-apartheid leader, Obama traced the influence that Mandela's story has had on his own life, disclosing that he asks himself how well he's applied Mandela's lessons to himself as a man and as president.
He said in the US, South Africa and around the world, people must not allow progress that's been made to cloud the fact that more work must be done.
"We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality," Obama said, referring to Mandela by his traditional clan name.
"There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," he said.
Obama shakes hands with Raul Castro (Photo: Reuters)
Barack Obama shook hands with Cuba's Raul Castro, a rare gesture between the leaders of the ideologically opposed.
Castro smiled as Obama moved to shake his hand on the way to the podium before making a rousing speech in memory of the former South African president, one of the world's great peacemakers, who died on Thursday aged 95.
Crowds converged on FNB Stadium in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela embodied as a prisoner of white rule for 27 years and then during a peril-fraught transition to the all-race elections that made him president.
Steady rain kept many people away. The 95,000-capacity stadium was filling up during the ceremony, which began at noon local time with the singing of the national anthem.
Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande amongst the crowd (Photo: AP)
The mood, though, was celebratory. A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance.
David Cameron (right) at Mandela's ceremony (Photo: EPA)
Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who succeeded Mandela, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators who sang praise for Mandela, seen by many South Africans as the father of the nation.
The stadium where the memorial took place (Photo: AP)
"I would not have the life I have today if it was not for him," said Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a postgraduate marketing student who arrived hours before the stadium gates opened. "He was jailed so we could have our freedom."
Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said in the stadium that he grew up during white rule in a "privileged position" as a white South African and that Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.
"His reconciliation allowed whites to be released themselves," Lair said. "I honestly don't think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela."
Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, at the ceremony (Photo: AFP)
Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived amid an enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.
United States President Barack Obama landed in South Africa early Tuesday. Besides Obama, eulogies were to be delivered by UN chief Ban, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Other speakers include the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India, as well as tributes from Mandela's grandchildren.
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were at the stadium. So were actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.
Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa's last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country.
Mandela said in his acceptance speech at the time: "We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born."
The sounds of horns and cheering filled the stadium ahead of the ceremony. The rain, seen as a blessing among South Africa's majority black population, enthused the crowd.
Bono and his wife at the memorial (Photo: Getty Imagebank)
"In our culture the rain is a blessing," said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. "Only great, great people are memorialized with it. Rain is life. This is perfect weather for us on this occasion."
People blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horn that was widely used during the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010, and sang songs from the era of the anti-apartheid struggle decades ago.
"It is a moment of sadness celebrated by song and dance, which is what we South Africans do," said Xolisa Madywabe, CEO of a South African investment firm.
The soccer venue was also the spot where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the World Cup. After the memorial, his body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, once the seat of white power, before burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.
Police promised tight security, locking down roads kilometers (miles) around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.
Prior to the memorial service (Photo: Reuters)
John Allen, a 48-year-old pastor from the US state of Arkansas, said he once met Mandela at a shopping center in South Africa with his sons.
Fans flocking in to the stadium (Photo: AFP)
"He joked with my youngest and asked if he had voted for Bill Clinton," Allen said. "He just zeroed in on my 8-year-old for the three to five minutes we talked."
Despite the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
announced he would not attend Mandela's wake, the hosts included him and President Peres when thanking heads of state who arrived to pay respects to the late South African president.
|Mandela wake announcements (Video: Reuters)|
"The president of Israel, President Shimon Peres,
and the head of the delegation, the Prime Minister Mister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is here," the announcer proclaimed, though neither was present.
Former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Alon Liel, told Ynet radio that Netanyahu was right not to go to Johannesburg: "Netanyahu is not a welcomed guest in today's South Africa; I think he's right not to go."
Liel nevertheless stressed that saying his reason not to go was financial was wrong.
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