*U.S. President Barack Obama (back L) and his wife, Michelle Obama look at the official program booklet during Tuesday’s remembrance day for the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa. –
Joyous, singing South Africans gathered in the rain Tuesday to honor Nelson Mandela at a massive memorial service that is expected to draw some 100 heads of state and other luminaries, united in tribute to a global symbol of reconciliation.
Crowds converged on FNB Stadium in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela embodied as a prisoner of white rule for 27 years and then during a peril-fraught transition to the all-race elections that made him president.
Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived amid an enormous logistical challenge of organising the memorial for Mandela, who died on 5 December in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.
U.S. President Barack Obama landed in South Africa early Tuesday. Besides Obama, eulogies were to be delivered by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Other speakers include the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India, as well as tributes from Mandela’s grandchildren.
South African President Jacob Zuma was to give the keynote address.
However, steady rain kept many people away. Shortly before the start of the ceremony, there were some 20,000 people in the 95,000-capacity stadium. Other area stadiums equipped with giant video screens for anticipated overflow crowds were largely empty.
“I would not have the life I have today if it was not for him,” said Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a postgraduate marketing student who arrived hours before the stadium gates opened. “He was jailed so we could have our freedom.”
Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said he grew up during white rule in a “privileged position” as a white South African and that Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.