People are in high spirits for Nelson Mandela’s tribute today.
Tens of thousands of South Africans converged in sorrow, celebration and pride on Tuesday on Soweto’s World Cup stadium, to sit side-by-side with presidents, priests and queens at a memorial service for unifying global icon Nelson Mandela.
Close to 100 world leaders were among 80 000 people expected to cram into the venue in Soweto – the crucible of Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle – to bid farewell to a man whose life story earned uncommon universal respect.
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.
“He’s God given, he’s God taken. We will never stop to cherish him,” said Shahim Ismail, who took a day off from the sports academy he runs in Johannesburg to attend the event.
With access offered on a first-come basis, crowds began gathering before daybreak and, as the gates opened, they swarmed into the stadium, looking for the best vantage point on the sloped terracing.
Wrapped in the South African flag or yellow-green coloured shawls printed with the slogan “Mandela Forever,” they danced and sang – oblivious to a persistent morning drizzle.
Many of the songs flowing from the terraces harked back to the apartheid-era struggle, but the atmosphere was one of inclusion.
News of Mandela’s death at his home in Johannesburg resonated around the world, triggering a wave of loving admiration from political and religious leaders, some of whom agree on little else.
Global rivalries put on pause
The presidents of the United States and Cuba were among those sharing the memorial stage, pausing rivalries that date back to the Cold War to pay tribute as millions around the world looked on.
The Indian and Brazilian presidents will also deliver eulogies, reflecting the extraordinary global reach, popularity and influence of one of the 20th century’s best-loved statesmen.
Obama and his wife Michelle flew in on Air Force One early in the morning, together with former president George W Bush and his wife Laura.
Two other ex-presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, arrived separately.
The memorial event was part of an extended state funeral that will culminate in Mandela’s burial on Sunday in the rural village of Qunu where he spent his early childhood.
Security was tight around the Soweto stadium, with military helicopters flying overhead and marshals helping police to keep the crowds moving.
Four of Mandela’s grandchildren were set to speak for his family.