Over 100 world leaders, including Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, are among tens of thousands of people gathered at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of the anti-apartheid struggle, to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela and pay final tributes to him.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen were accompanied by four former Canadian prime ministers – Mulroney, Kim Campbell Jean Chretien and Joe Clark – to honour Mandela’s well lived life.
U.S. President Barack Obama who landed in South Africa early Tuesday, delivered a eulogy at the memorial, describing Nelson Mandela as a “giant of justice” and the last great liberator of the 20th Century.
Obama said too many leaders in the world claimed solidarity with his struggle for freedom “but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
“It is hard to eulogise any man… how much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice.”
The American President whose moving speech was repeatedly interrupted by applause from the crowd compared Mandela to Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr and Abraham Lincoln.
Obama said that the great black leader taught the world the power of action and ideas and lamented that “We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.”
Obama made the trip to honour Mandela’s memory with his wife, Michelle, former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Just before his compelling speech, Obama made news when he shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro.
After U.S. businesses in Cuba were nationalized without compensation, the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo.
President Jacob Zuma, was booed by the crowd but still delivered a keynote address in which he said that Mandela was “one of a kind adding that he was a “fearless freedom fighter who refused to allow the brutality of the apartheid state to stand in way of the struggle for the liberation of his people”.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in his speech said that South Africa had lost “a hero, a father”.
Continuing, he said “The world has lost a beloved friend and mentor. Mandela was more than one of the greatest leaders of all time…This boxer fought throughout his life for each of us. It is the duty of all of us who loved him to keep his memory alive.”
ANC’s Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, he apologises for the rain, but says this is a blessing for Africans. “We were not able to stop the rain,” he says. “These are blessings, and in our African tradition, when it rains when you are buried the gods are welcoming you.”
Other dignitaries present at the memorial which was still in progress as at press time included the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, Afghan President Hamid Kazai, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria,Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Cuban President Raul Castro, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao.
The ceremony will also welcome tributes from Mandela’s grandchildren.
Tuesday marked 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.
The heavy rains that greeted the spectators did not appear to dampen the mood in the 95,000-seat stadium, as crowds sang and danced in the stands.
The stadium was only half-way full at the time the memorial commenced at 12 noon, an hour behind schedule owing to the downpour and other stadiums in the area equipped with giant video screens for anticipated overflow crowds were largely empty.