Nelson Mandela would be remembered as “the last great liberator of the Twentieth Century”, President Barack Obama has said.
Addressing a huge crowd in Johannesburg, President Obama compared the late ‘Madiba’ with fellow freedom fighters Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
“Like Gandhi he would lead a resistance movement; a movement that in its start had little prospect of success.
“Like Dr King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed.”
The president hailed the South African people for helping secure Mandela’s quest for democracy.
“The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” he said, in an address that generated at times thunderous applause.
“His struggle was your struggle; his triumph was your triumph….
“Your freedom, your democracy, is his cherished legacy.”
Those saying goodbye included a host of world leaders and celebrities as well as 80,000 everyday South Africans in Soweto Soccer Stadium and many more in nearby ‘overflow’ venues where people watched on large screens.
Many chose to sing and dance away their grief, prompting requests from organisers to “please tone down the singing”.
Other leaders past and present included Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Jimmy Carter, along with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, Prince Charles and British prime minister David Cameron.
Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and French president Francois Hollande are also attending the mass memorial, which is to recall Mandela’s gift for bringing enemies together across political and racial divides.
Bono and South African actress Charlize Theron were among the celebrities.
Mr Mugabe’s presence, along with that of the presidents of Sri Lanka and Sudan may well have raised eyebrows, given their nations’ chequered recent human rights record.
Reflecting the spirit of diversity and tolerance for which Mandela gave so much, the service featured prayers by leaders of the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.
South African president Jacob Zuma himself received a lukewarm reception being booed in some quarters but Mr Mandela’s grandchildren were widely cheered as they spoke of peace and reconciliation.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon also spoke, talking of Mr Mandela’s hatred for injustice but never hatred for individual people.
“The world has lost a beloved friend and mentor,” Mr Ban said.
Security was tight around the venue, with military helicopters flying overhead, and newly-recruited marshals in bright jackets helping police keep the crowds moving.
Overseas visitors such as British Prime Minister David Cameron noted rain did little to dampen people’s enthusiasm.
Many visitors were wrapped in the South African flag or yellow-green coloured shawls printed with the slogan “Mandela Forever” and portraits of their hero.
— NDTV (@ndtv) December 10, 2013
Mr Obama, Mr Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt caused controversy by taking a selfie during the memorial.
In a candid moment captured by AFP photographer Roberto Schmidt, Denmark’s Helle Thorning-Schmidt can be seen holding up her smartphone, with Obama lending a helping hand, as they pose for a picture with David Cameron, all three of them smiling broadly in their seats at Soweto’s World Cup stadium.
First Lady Michelle Obama, sitting to the left of her husband, doesn’t join in with the lighthearted moment, keeping her eyes firmly trained on the podium where world leaders were paying tribute to South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero Mandela, who died Thursday aged 95.
The so-called selfie – short for self-portrait – was quickly picked up by major international news outlets and went viral on social media sites, with many questioning whether the moment of mirth was appropriate for the occasion.
— Jeffry R. Halverson (@JeffryHalverson) December 10, 2013
“Is This The Most Important Selfie Of 2013?” headlined the US-based social news website Buzzfeed, noting that Michelle Obama seemed “not amused” by the impromptu photoshoot.
Earlier, mourners arriving by train embraced a spirit of celebration rather than mourning.
“Welcome. You are all welcome!” blared a loudspeaker as the train door opened, disgorging hundreds of mourners onto the platform.
“Viva Tata Madiba, Viva!” the new arrivals shouted back, as they began chanting and singing in a spontaneous celebration of grief and pride.
From the station they walked, jogged and sang their way in light rain towards the Soweto stadium to join in a mass remembrance for Tata (Father) Nelson Mandela, their saviour president whose courage and fortitude broke the back of the hated apartheid system.
They began gathering at the Nelson Mandela funeral before daybreak, desperate to secure one of the precious first-comer tickets that would allow them to join nearly 100 heads of state and government in paying tribute to Mandela’s life and legacy.
Despite the profound sense of national sorrow triggered by Mandela’s death last Thursday, the mood was upbeat, with people determined to celebrate the memory of one of the 20th century’s towering political figures.
“This is once in your life. This is history,” said Noma Kova, 36. “I didn’t want to watch this on TV,” she said.
When the gates opened, people rushed in to the stadiums, searching for the best vantage point on the sloped terracing overlooking the field.
As the stands filled up, the physical structure seemed to undulate as the crowd bobbed and danced en masse, like a giant, confused Mexican wave.
Some 70km away at the Waterkloof air force base, journalists watched as plane after plane swooped down bringing in the world leaders from every corner of the globe.
Thousands of mourners had used a free train service from central Johannesburg to reach the stadium, mixing excitedly together on the platform and in the compartments – men and women of all ages and races.
“I am going to the memorial to be closer to the national mood, to come out of my bubble,” said white Afrikaans speaker Marcel Boezaart, 26.
Nigerian Fola Folowosele, 27, had been visiting friends in South Africa when the news that Mandela had died broke last Thursday.
For Folowosele, there was never any doubt in his mind that he would stay to be part of the week-long state funeral that followed.
“He’s perhaps Africa’s greatest son, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.
Some in the crowd recalled treasured moments when they had seen or, in some cases, even met or spoken to the man they had come to remember.
“When you say Mandela, you are talking South Africa,” said Julenda Ntlekoana, a nurse who met Mandela when he visited her Johannesburg hospital after he retired from office.
— with The New Daily