Thousands of South Africans braved driving rain at the nation’s biggest stadium to mark the life of Nelson Mandela in the first of three major public events this week that may rival the funeral of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
U.S. President Barack Obama and leaders from countries including Brazil and India paid tribute to Mandela today in the service at FNB Stadium in Soweto, a township southwest of Johannesburg. Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at the age of 95, was jailed for 27 years for fighting to end the system of racial oppression under apartheid and became South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
A choir led the crowd in gospel and anti-apartheid songs, as people clapped their hands and waved flags and portraits of Mandela, many trying to shield themselves from the rain. Mourners began streaming through the gates after 6 a.m. local time at FNB Stadium, where Mandela was last seen in public at the 2010 soccer World Cup final. The 94,000-seat stadium was more than two-thirds full.
“We are very grateful that the nation is coming together in this wonderful way,” F.W. de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, said in an interview at the stadium. “I hope that we will refocus on the values for which he stood, for the need for reconciliation, for peaceful coexistence, improvement of the quality of life for all.”
The crowd erupted when the screen showed Obama and also cheered when Graca Machel, Mandela’s widow, was shown walking into the stadium. South African-born actress Charlize Theron and Bono, the lead singer of U2, also attended the service.
“Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done,” Obama said in his speech. “South Africa shows us that is true. South Africa shows us we can change.”
People booed when South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was introduced and stood up to make the hand signal commonly used to signify a substitution in soccer, a sign used to show disapproval of the South African leader. Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the ANC, urged the crowd to show discipline.
Zuma has been criticized by opposition parties and labor unions following reports that the government used more than 200 million rand ($19.4 million) of taxpayers’ money to pay for security upgrades and renovations on his home.
“We voted for him, because we believed in him, but he failed us,” Terror Moloi, 34, a laundry worker from Soweto, wearing a colorful ANC cap, said referring to Zuma. “He’s an embarrassment to the nation.”
The crowd went quiet when Zuma delivered his address and some people cheered when he concluded his remarks.
Mandela “leaves behind a nation that loves him dearly,” Zuma said. “He leaves the people of the world who embraced him as their beloved icon. He leaves behind a deeply entrenched legacy of freedom, human rights and democracy in our country.”
Rain poured down during proceedings, which started an hour late.
“The rain is a sign for us,” said Nicky Lwandise Majeke, 28, a security officer in the stadium’s upper stands. “Madiba will go in a good way,” he said referring to Mandela by his clan name. “It’s a blessing.” Majeke said he remembers Mandela from when he visited him when he was in the hospital with a broken finger as a 5-year-old.
“He leaves an amazing legacy and his memory will always live on because his character was so unique,” former U.K Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters. “In the way that he reconciled, people will always regard him and what he did as an example to follow.”
Screens were set up in three other stadiums in Johannesburg to allow 200,000 people to watch the memorial service, which was addressed by leaders including Cuban President Raul Castro, India’s Pranab Mukherjee, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao.
As he made his way through the row of national leaders at the memorial, Obama shook hands and briefly exchanged words with Castro, whose government has been at odds with the U.S. for more than five decades.
“In terms of international forward planning, no one else comes close” to Mandela’s funeral, said Alex Vines, research director at Chatham House in London. “JFK framed a generation; Mandela does the same for the current generation of people in their late 30s and over.”
As many as 2,000 people an hour will file past Mandela’s casket when his body lies in state in Pretoria Dec. 11 to Dec. 13, according to Collins Chabane, a minister in the presidency. At least 5,000 people are expected to attend the funeral on Dec. 15 in Mandela’s home village of Qunu.
“Rain or shine we would be here,” Charles Msingatha, 53, who had traveled about 52 kilometers from Randfontein with his family to the memorial, said in an interview at FNB Stadium, while holding an umbrella over his daughter. Msingatha said there were many things he would remember about Mandela, in particular being given the opportunity to vote.
About 90 heads of state attended Kennedy’s funeral in November 1963, while millions more watched on television, according to his presidential library. More than a million people lined the streets of London for Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, according to the British Broadcasting Corp.
“If you go back in history, this will rank up there with the funerals of Princess Diana and JFK,” said Tyrone Seale, chief director at the South African government’s communications department. “This will be an extraordinary event around the world. South Africa is humbled by that.”
About 11,000 soldiers were recalled from vacation to manage the former president’s funeral.
“He did so much for us,” Diana Maringa, 37, an unemployed woman from Soweto, said in an interview at the FNB stadium. “He made us free. And he was just a wonderful man, full of love.”