Mandela memorial: a national moment and a global who's who

Global leaders gather as South Africa prepares to hold Mandela's memorial in a 95,000-seat stadium in the previously black-only township of Soweto Tuesday.

Matt Dunham/AP
An image of former South Africa President Nelson Mandela is shown on a big screen as work is carried out to put up a stage at the FNB stadium where his memorial service will take place on Tuesday, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.

South Africa is gearing up to host one of the biggest global events in modern history as 91 world leaders join politicians, celebrities, and thousands of members of the public to bid farewell to former President Nelson Mandela. The memorial has been called a version of the United Nations General Assembly and a potentially chaotic security situation.

Tomorrow’s memorial service will be held at a 95,000-seat stadium, located in the previously black-only township of Soweto.

Late last night, the government released the line-up for the memorial, which will be hosted by Cyril Ramaphosa, the African National Congress (ANC) deputy president, and Baleka Mbete, the ANC national chairperson. Three of Mr. Mandela’s grandchildren and one great-granddaughter will speak, along with close friend and former Robben Island inmate, Andrew Mlangeni.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro will also speak, along with the presidents of India and Namibia, and the vice president of China.

The guest list reads like the who’s who of world politics, including former US presidents Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, who will be accompanied by his family. Britain is sending Prime Minister David Cameron and his three predecessors. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai will be in attendance, along with Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“I said to the Secretary General of the United Nations, if you wanted to call a General Assembly, you could do it here rather than find another venue, they’re all here,” said Collins Chabane, the South African minister tasked with arranging Mandela’s memorial, noting the large number of world leaders.

The politicians will be joined by a phalanx of celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, supermodel Naomi Campbell, U2 lead-singer Bono, and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.

Neither The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who met Mandela in Cape Town in 1996, nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attend the memorial. The Dali Lama has twice been refused a visa by South Africa, which is keen to court China as a strategic ally, although his spokesman has not explicitly cited that as his reason for sitting out the event. Mr. Netanyahu canceled plans to attend the event, citing high travel and security costs.

The event may create some unusual moments in the annals of modern diplomacy, demonstrating once more how Mandela’s charm and strength of character sometimes brought together the most unusual bedfellows.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani – who already sparked some outrage in both their countries this year when they spoke by telephone for the first time since ties between Iran and the US were severed more than 30 years ago – could come face to face in South Africa.

The prospect has generated preemptive outrage in the hard-line Iranian media. Tehran’s Kayhan newspaper carried a headline today, which read: "Satan lays a trap, this time in Johannesburg."


The scale of the event and the apparent last-minute nature of many of the arrangements have led some to speculate a chaotic air tomorrow.

“For those who predict chaos, we are used to it,” Mr. Chabane said. “It’s not new, and all the time they have been proved wrong,” he said, pointing to previous successfully-hosted events like the rugby and football world cups and the UN climate change summit.

There are some almost unheard-of challenges for the South Africans and multinational security services mandated to protect their VIPs at tomorrow’s memorial, however.

The government has confirmed that any member of the public is welcome to the stadium without prior accreditation. In a bid to prevent terror scares, a large portion of Johannesburg’s arterial roads and airspace will be closed.

Parents have been asked to write their cell phone numbers on the inside of their childrens’ forearms in case they get separated from them in the anticipated crowds. Free public transportation has been coordinated for those wishing to travel to the stadium, and big screens have been set up around the country for those who cannot make the event.

“We ask that where people are turned away, they respond with the dignity and decency that Madiba would expect in a situation like that,” Chabane said.

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