Johannesburg - US President Barack Obama summed up the awed respect Nelson Mandela inspired around the world at a rain-drenched memorial in Soweto on Tuesday that hinted at the tension straining South African politics after his death last week.
“It is hard to eulogise any man... How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world,” Obama began, in a speech that placed Mandela in the pantheon of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
As tens of thousands of South Africans listened and applauded in the FNB Stadium, in Soweto, and in front of screens around the country, Obama thanked them “for sharing Mandela with us”.
“He turned his trial into an indictment of apartheid,” he said, adding: “His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and your hope found expression in his life and your freedom and democracy is his cherished legacy.”
Obama traced Mandela's life from his youth in rural Qunu, where he will be buried on Sunday, through 27 defiant years in apartheid jails to his final years as revered statesman, but rejected the notion that he was perfect.
“He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.... It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection, because he was so full of good humour, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens that he carried, that we loved him so.”
He went on to warn against politicians who tried to bask in Mandela's glory, but betrayed his example.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”
The eulogy drew a standing ovation from close on 100 black-clad world leaders, who flew to Johannesburg at short notice, and ordinary South Africans, who waited at the stadium's gates from dawn for a chance to pay farewell to Mandela.
Once inside, they danced and sang in their seats, clutching umbrellas, in a show of celebration rather than grief that has been seen repeatedly across South Africa in recent days.
US, British and French heads of government past and present attended, along with European royals, African leaders including Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and a strong celebrity contingent led by local born actress Charlize Theron.
Obama shared the podium with Cuban leader Raul Castro, with whom he shook hands despite decades of hostility between their countries, on a day that brought more political drama as the crowd repeatedly booed President Jacob Zuma.
Before the ceremony started an hour late at noon, mourners broke into cheers when former president Thabo Mbeki, who in effect served as Mandela's prime minister during his single-term in office, entered the stadium.
There were cheers too for apartheid's last president FW de Klerk, who freed Mandela and unbanned the ANC.
But Zuma was loudly jeered when he arrived, and again later when his face flashed onto giant screens in the stadium.
African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who served as master of ceremonies, called the crowd to order, and it appeared that Zuma's speech had been shortened to avoid further embarrassment.
“Everyone has had a Mandela moment when this world icon has touched their lives... There was no one like Madiba, he was one of a kind,” Zuma said.
“Today, the whole world stands still to pay tribute to Africa's greatest son. Rest in peace our father and our hero.”
The event ended with a sharp reprimand from Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who told those in the stands: “You must show the world that we are disciplined... We promise God that we are going to follow the example of Nelson Mandela.”
As the crowd thinned, Belgium prime minister Elio Di Rupo mingled and shook hands with locals.
The ANC admitted it was shocked at the disrespect shown to Zuma, who is weathering a political scandal over the cost of his home in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal, in the run-up to next year's general elections.
“We are not happy at all. We would have preferred that all who attended this ceremony gave Madiba a well-deserved send-off. It came as a bolt to all of us,” ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said.
“It did the Madiba family, who are mourning, and also Mama Graca (Mandela's widow Graca Machel) and Mama Winnie (his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela)... a terrible disservice.”
The memorial is set to overshadow Mandela's state funeral in his boyhood village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape on Sunday, which will only have space for about 5000 mourners.
The broadcast of the memorial was cancelled in Qunu because of rain.