IN what has turned out as one of the largest gatherings of global leaders in recent history, presidents from Barack Obama of the United States (U.S.), Cuba’s Raul Castro, Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan and Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Tuesday paid tributes to Nelson Madiba Mandela who died last Thursday at the age of 95.
They were among the presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and royals and ordinary people from across the world – Bangladesh, Palestine, India, Chile, and literally, the world over – who joined hundreds of thousands of South Africans to pay tributes to Mandela, in a memorial service that celebrated a man seen as a global symbol of reconciliation.
Every living former U.S. president was there except George Bush (Snr.) as well as every living former British Prime Minister.
The world of entertainment also was well represented with South African actress, Charlize Theron, U2′s Bono and Kirk Franklin in attendance.
Despite the heavy rain, which in his native Xhosa tribe is seen as a blessing, the atmosphere in the FNB Stadium, Johannesburg, was celebratory, with people dancing, blowing ‘vuvuzela’ (plastic horns) and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle.
Many carried banners honouring ‘Madiba’ Mandela’s traditional clan name, or his picture. Others were draped in materials covered with his face or the green, yellow, black, red and blue colours of the South African flag.
Some had skipped work and queued for hours to secure a seat so that they could pay their respects at the stadium where Mandela delivered his first major speech after his release from prison.
The four-hour service, which coincided with United Nations (UN) Human Rights Day, is the centrepiece of a week of mourning and brought much of South Africa to a stop.
It began with the national anthem before South Africa’s presidents – past and present – were introduced.
There was a loud cheer from the crowd for F.W. de Klerk, the last leader of white South Africa, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for helping to end apartheid.
The arrivals of Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, wearing a yellow rose and customary dark sunglasses, brought cheers from the crowd.
The joyous cries died down as speeches from Mandela’s family, friends as well as a fellow Robben Island prison inmate began. Anguished faces listened quietly as a sorrowful chant to “Tata Madiba” filled the air. “Tata” means “father” in Xhosa.
“This is how Nelson Mandela would have wanted to be sent on,” said Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy ANC leader who chaired the proceedings. “These are blessings. In our African tradition (when it rains), it means the gods are welcoming you and the gates of heaven are open.”
Among the crowd, a scarlet-robed Desmond Tutu stood out as he watched the proceedings with a sombre expression.
Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, barely held back tears as she walked slowly into the stadium supported by her eldest daughter, Zindzi. She embraced Graça Machel, Mandela’s widow, before taking a seat.
Speaking on behalf of the family, General Thanduxolo Mandela said he was mindful that they shared the former president with the rest of the country and the world. “He is gone from before our eyes but never from our hearts and minds,” he said.
The memorial service may have given birth to the first steps towards thawing one of the frostiest relations created since the cold war.
In a mark of reconciliation that Mandela himself would have approved of, Obama making his way to the podium shook hands with Raul Castro of Cuba.
The U.S. and Cuba have literally not been on speaking terms for more than 50 years.
Obama was in his element delivering a rousing speech that was both personal and political. “It is a singular honour to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any other. To the people of South Africa – people of every race and walk of life – the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” said Obama, who compared Mandela to Abraham Lincoln.
“It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection – because he could be so full of good humour, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried – that we loved him so,” he added, prompting applause.
South African President Jacob Zuma in his speech said: “Today, Madiba is no more. He leaves behind a nation that loves him dearly and a continent proud to call him an African.
Madiba laid foundation for better life for all.
“Madiba never hesitated to speak his mind, regardless of how uncomfortable his words may be.
“Under his leadership, the democratically-elected government focused on building a democratic society based on non-racialism and non-sexism.
“Indeed, Madiba was one of a kind.”
To Castro, Mandela was a prophet of unity.
“Mandela’s life teaches us that what threatens the existence of humanity can be eradicated only by effort from all countries.
“We shall never forget Mandela’s moving homage to our country’s struggles when he came,” said Castro who spoke of Mandela’s ‘bond of affection’ with Fidel Castro and quoted Fidel Castro as saying about Mandela: “Honour and glory for ever to the great comrade Nelson Mandela and the heroic people of South Africa.”
President Pranab Mukherjee of India in his tribute said: “Madiba was a towering personality of great compassion.
“Indeed, his life and struggles that represented hope of the downtrodden across the world reminds us of Father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi.”
Though now aged, Desmond Tutu seemed not to have lost much of his old energy as he brought the service to a close.
He scolded the crowd that seemed to be unruly by making noise.
“I won’t speak until there is pin-drop silence,” “You must show the world you are disciplined. I want to hear a pin drop.”
He also made them swear: “We promise to God we will follow the example of Nelson Mandela.”
With 91 heads of state attending, security was tight but South Africa rose to the occasion working off plans developed for years in secret, using an elite military task force, sniper teams and canine teams to help secure the stadium.
“Should anybody, anything dare to disturb or disrupt this period of mourning and finally taking and accompanying the former president to his last resting place, then that person will be dealt with,” Brig.-Gen. Xolani Mabanga had told Cable News Network (CNN) on Monday.
A minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane, had also confidently told journalists on Monday: “We can assure that all necessary steps have been taken, and that is why the leadership of the world and former leaders of the world have confidence to come to our country at this time to share with us this moment.”
As Obama flew into South Africa, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes had told reporters aboard Air Force One that they were satisfied with security arrangements.
“We do not have any concerns.
“The South Africans hosted the World Cup, so they have experience hosting significant crowds and managing events like this, although clearly this is really a unique event in the world.”
While Tuesday’s memorial is the first major event honouring Mandela since his death, it won’t be the last.
A state funeral will be held on Sunday in Mandela’s ancestral hometown of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.
Yesterday’s has begun to be compared with other significant state funerals in recent decades, such as that of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1965 and the 2008 funeral of Pope John Paul II, which attracted some two million people to Rome – among them four kings, five queens, at least 70 presidents and prime ministers and the leaders of 14 other faiths.
Metal detectors and some 15,000 members of security forces stood watch over the event.