Johannesburg - South Africa raced Monday to meet the unprecedented logistical challenge of hosting close to 100 world leaders flying in from every corner of the globe for the state funeral of freedom icon Nelson Mandela.
“The world literally is coming to South Africa,” said the government's head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela.
“I don't think it has ever happened before,” Monyela said of the wave of 91 heads of state and government, including US President Barack Obama, descending on the country.
Many will join the 80 000 people expected to cram Tuesday into the FNB stadium in Soweto for a sweeping, emotional tribute to their inspirational first black president.
The memorial service, in the venue where Mandela made his last major public appearance for the 2010 World Cup final, is seen as a final chance for grieving South Africans to unite in a mass celebration of his life ahead of the more formal state funeral.
Another 120 000 people will be able to watch a live broadcast of the event on giant screens set up in three overflow stadiums in Johannesburg.
Although Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death on Thursday night was still a body blow for a country that had looked to his unassailable moral authority as a comforting constant in a time of uncertain social and economic change.
“I don't think you are ever prepared enough,” said Zelda la Grange, who was Mandela's long-time personal assistant both during and after his presidency.
“We had prepared ourselves emotionally but still we are overcome by this feeling of loss and sadness,” La Grange said.
The week-long funeral rites will culminate Sunday in Mandela's burial at a family plot in his rural, boyhood home of Qunu.
A stage was being erected Monday with VIP seating at the site in Eastern Cape province, which has attracted crowds of mourners in the last three days, bringing floral tributes for the anti-apartheid champion.
Prior to that, his body will lie in state for three days from Wednesday in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria where he was sworn in as president in 1994.
Each morning, his coffin will be carried through the streets of the capital in a funeral cortege, to give as many people as possible the chance to pay their final respects.
Around 11 000 troops have been mobilised to ensure security and help with crowd control efforts during the week-long series of funeral events.
Despite the sudden influx of international dignitaries and the compressed preparation time, National Police spokesman Solomon Makgale insisted that the security apparatus would hold firm.
“Having so many heads of state is not a security headache for us. We've learned over the years,” Makgale said, adding that they would be “working closely” with the foreign leaders' own security details.
As well as Obama and three previous occupants of the White House, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were all on the guest list.
Parliament met on Monday in Cape Town for a special session to honour Mandela who emerged from 27 years in prison to lead his country out of the shadow of apartheid into a multi-racial democracy.
Two banners hanging at the entrance to the national assembly carried giant portraits of Mandela in tribal dress and as an elder statesman.
His ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and grandson Mandla are both African National Congress (ANC) members of parliament, but it was unclear if they would participate in the session.
Former president FW de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel peace Prize with Mandela, was also invited.
Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of the day the two men received the prize in Oslo.
Winnie and Mandla both attended a Methodist service in Johannesburg on Sunday as part of a national day of prayer for Mandela observed in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples across the country.
President Jacob Zuma used the occasion to make a passionate public appeal for South Africans to unite behind Mandela's ideals of equality, freedom and justice and to “keep his dream alive”.
Cuban state media said President Raul Castro would attend the state funeral, but not his ailing older brother Fidel - a long time friend of Mandela's.
Africa will be represented by Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan and more than a dozen other heads of state and government.
Notable absentees include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who cited high travel and security costs, and Mandela's fellow Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, who since 2009 has twice been denied a visa for South Africa.
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and singer-activist Bono, as well as British billionaire Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel are expected to be among the celebrity mourners.