JOHANNESBURG // Barack Obama, the US president, eulogised Nelson Mandela as a “giant of history” who became more than a smiling icon by showing the power of political action as tens of thousands of South Africans united in proud, noisy celebration Tuesday at a rain-soaked emotional memorial service.
Songs of praise and revolution, many harking back to the apartheid era that Mandela helped condemn to history, echoed around the giant stadium in Soweto where close to 100 world leaders had come to pay tribute to a man whose life story earned universal respect.
“It is hard to eulogise any man ... how much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice,” Obama said, after being introduced to wild cheers from a rain-sodden crowd in a Soweto stadium during Mandela’s memorial service.
The event began at 11am (1pm UAE) with a stirring rendition of the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), led by a mass choir and picked up with enthusiasm by the rest of the stadium.
“His long walk is over, he can finally rest,” African National Congress (ANC) Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an opening address.
In his tribute, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that Mandela had managed to unite people in death, much as he had in life.
“Look around this stage ... we see leaders representing many points of view ... all here, all united,” he said.
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.
“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 owner of a health insurance company, said 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,” Mr Lair said. “I honestly don’t think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela.”
Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived amid an enormous logistical challenge of organising the memorial for Mandela, who died December 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.
US President Barack Obama landed in South Africa earlier today. Besides Obama, eulogies were to be delivered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and Cuban President Raúl Castro.
Other speakers include the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India, as well as tributes from Mandela’s grandchildren.
South African President Jacob Zuma was to give the keynote address.
Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, FW 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 vuvuzelas and cheering filled the stadium ahead of the ceremony, due to start at 11am (1pm UAE). Rain sent those who arrived early into the stadium’s covered upper deck, and many of the lower seats were empty.
People blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horn that was widely used during the 2010 Fifa World Cup, 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 95,000-capacity 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 on Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.
Police promised tight security, locking down roads around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.
John Allen, a 48-year-old pastor from the US state of Arkansas, said he once met Mandela at a shopping centre in South Africa with his sons.
“He joked with my youngest and asked if he had voted for Bill Clinton,” Mr Allen said. “He just zeroed in on my 8-year-old for the three to five minutes we talked.”