Mandela: under gray skies, a vibrant celebration of S. Africa's 'greatest son'

Tens of thousands gathered at a stadium in Soweto to remember Nelson Mandela today. 'In Africa, when the lion dies, the jungle roars. We’re here to make sure that happens,' said one. 

Ben Curtis/AP
The face of Nelson Mandela is shown on a large billboard in the stands at the Dec. 10, 2013, memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Though they were prepared for the moment, most South Africans were devastated at the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela. Yet the mood on this rainy Tuesday morning at a huge stadium in Soweto was one of celebration rather than sadness as a nation remembered its "greatest son."

Tens of thousands of ordinary citizens and almost 100 world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, joined virtually every African leader on the continent, along with numerous celebrities.

People came wrapped in South African flags, faces painted, banners bearing Mr. Mandela’s face at the ready, singing anti-apartheid struggle songs.

Media worker Yvonne Moratiele, her head wrapped in an African National Congress scarf and a green, black, and yellow flag draping her body, said  Mandela would be getting the sendoff he richly deserved.

“In Africa, when the lion dies, the jungle roars. We’re here to make sure that happens,” she said.

Pensioner Tshidi Mogatusi walked for an hour through Soweto’s darkened streets to take her seat in the stadium.

“It’s the Long Walk to FNB,” she joked, referring to Mr Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. Unfurling her umbrella and casting a glance up at the ominously gray sky, she added: “Even the rain can’t stop us.”

The stars who gathered at the stadium included Charlize Theron, the South Africa-born Hollywood actress who said her recollections of Mr Mandela were "just a tremendous memory of love and compassion and warmth."

Mr. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and his predecessors Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, arrived 15 minutes after the service began, and were greeted by an ear-splitting cheer from the crowds.

South African President Jacob Zuma, recently embroiled in a corruption scandal over state spending on his private home, did not fare so well, and was repeatedly booed when the cameras settled on him.

A rousing rendition of the national anthem Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (God Bless Africa) started proceedings, and was followed by interfaith prayers.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the ruling ANC’s deputy president, issued visitors with “a warm South African welcome” and apologized for the cold weather.

He said however that it was no bad thing that it was raining. “It’s a blessing from the ancestors welcoming a son of the soil,” he said.

Thanduxolo Mandela, a Mandela family spokesman, was among the first to address the crowds.

"Tata has gone from before our eyes but never from our hearts and minds,” he said.

"As a family we have no option but to be powered by the principles of Nelson Mandela. He would accept no less."

Three of Mandela’s grandchildren and one great-granddaughter made short speeches, describing their elder as “a giant tree that has fallen, scattering a thousand brilliant leaves.”

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations General-Secretary, alluded to the event’s bringing together of global foes, which include the US and Cuba – whose leaders were pictured shaking hands in the stands, and officials from Palestine and Israel.

It was, Mr. Ban said, testament to Mr Mandela’s “awesome power of forgiveness -- and of connecting people with each other.”

“He has done it again,” he said. “Look around this stadium and this stage. We see leaders representing many points of view, and people from all walks of life. All here, all united.”

Obama took to the podium to tell the audience that it was “a privilege to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other.”

He quoted Mandela’s speech from the court dock as he and his contemporaries thought they were about to be sentenced to death, in which he told them he would sacrifice his life to fight against white domination and black domination.

"Mandela taught us the power of action but also the power of ideas,” he said. “He makes me want to be a better man."

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