Presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and royals join tens of thousands of South Africans to pay tribute

By Andrea Billups and Stephen M. Silverman
December 10, 2013 06:00 AM
Bernat Armangue/AP

The world’s political, religious and human rights leaders have converged on Johannesburg, South Africa, to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, who died last Thursday at 95.

Calling Mandela “a giant of history,” President Obama spoke about the life and legacy of the late leader, and thanked the people of South Africa “for sharing him with us.”

“He gave hope to the oppressed,” said Obama, who likened Mandela to Abraham Lincoln for keeping his country together at a time it threatened to break apart.

Also due to speak were South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, and the presidents of Brazil, India and Cuba – as well as Bono and Oprah Winfrey.

They are to join the Dalai Lama, Pope Francis and Prince Charles, among dozens of other heads of state, in paying respects to Mandela, whose courageous fight against racial injustice, which included 27 years in prison, will be eulogized in one of the largest state funerals in history.

A funeral cortege will travel along the city streets for three consecutive days this week. Thousands of people are expected to pay their respects to the visionary and dignified former president, who led a nation once-divided to modernization and strength.

Mandela will lie in state at the Union Buildings, the seat of South African government where he was inaugurated president in 1994, from Wednesday through Friday, a part of the nation’s 10-day mourning period that began last Thursday evening. Mandela, known to many by his tribal name Madiba, died at home in Johannesburg after a lingering respiratory infection.

Under rainy skies, Tuesday’s memorial service was held in the FNB Stadium, a soccer complex where Mandela last appeared publicly at a World Cup final in 2010.

“Our nation has lost its greatest son. What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human,” Zuma said in announcing Mandela’s death.

Several memorial services in advance of the larger state events are being held this week across the country including one in Qunu, the tribal village located on the country’s Eastern Cape, where Mandela lived as a child. He will be buried there in an area specially constructed for him to lie at rest near other family members.