Johannesburg - Thousands of South Africans made their way in the rain to mark the life of Nelson Mandela in the first of three major public events this week that may rival the funeral of US President John F. Kennedy.
US President Barack Obama and leaders from countries including Brazil and India will pay tribute to Mandela today in a service at FNB Stadium in Soweto, a township southwest of Johannesburg.
Mandela, who died on December 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.
“We are very grateful that the nation is coming together in this wonderful way,” FW 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.”
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.
About an hour before proceedings were due to start, the 94,000-seat stadium was less than half full.
A choir led the crowd in gospel songs, as people clapped their hands and waved flags and portraits of Mandela, many trying to shield themselves from the rain.
The crowd cheered when Graca Machel, Mandela’s widow, was shown on screens walking into the stadium.
South African-born actress Charlize Theron and Bono, the lead singer of U2, were also seen arriving for the memorial service.
“I got here at 5 a.m.,” said Charles Zwane, 44, wearing a yellow Mandela t-shirt, a badge with his face and a beret with the logo of the ruling African National Congress.
“I couldn’t miss this. I joined politics because of this old man.” Zwane, who says he was Mandela’s bodyguard until two years ago, lives six doors away from Mandela’s former residence in Vilakazi Street in Soweto.
Screens have been set up in three other stadiums in Johannesburg to allow 200,000 people to watch the memorial service, which will also be addressed by Raul Castro, president of Cuba.
“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 December 11 to December 13, according to Collins Chabane, a minister in the presidency.
At least 5,000 people are expected to attend the funeral on December 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 make 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.
The Radisson Blu hotel, located in Johannesburg’s commercial center of Sandton, and other luxury hotels told guests to leave their rooms to accommodate the foreign leaders.
“There is no accommodation available in the area due to all the foreign dignitaries that will occupy the various properties,” it said in a letter to guests.
About 11,000 soldiers have been recalled from vacation to manage the former president’s funeral.
China is sending Vice President Li Yuanchao.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided not to make the trip because of the high expense of flying to South Africa and making security arrangements at short notice.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will also not be attending.
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.”
In Qunu, about 900 kilometers (560 miles) southwest of Johannesburg, road workers were busy tarring sections of the road, painting lines, constructing culverts and balustrades and cutting grass on the verges on sections of the N2 highway that passes Mandela’s homestead.
A 4,000-seat stand is being erected in the south-east corner of the homestead’s grounds, while a massive steel frame for what appeared to be an covered arena to shelter mourners was being assembled.
“I’m here to say goodbye to our Tata Madiba,” Karabo Mzaku, 30, said in an interview from the bottom row of seats at FNB Stadium, while covering herself with a flag bearing Mandela’s face.
She directed her friends to the seats by phone as a helicopter flew overhead.
South Africa’s Parliament reconvened yesterday to hold a special sitting for Mandela.
The parliamentary precinct was adorned with giant posters of the former president and extracts from his speeches, while television screens beamed footage of him to lawmakers and hundreds of other visitors.
“Mandela is a great man,” S’dumo Dlamini, president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, said in an interview at FNB Stadium.
“His memorial service and the funeral on Sunday should signal permanent and long-term unity of our country. If there are people with issues, it should afford them an opportunity to talk among themselves, black and white to resolve those issues. That’s what Madiba represented: unity and nation-building,” he said, referring to Mandela by his clan name. - Bloomberg News