London - Prime Minister David Cameron led tributes to Nelson Mandela in a special session of Britain's parliament on Monday, hailing the anti-apartheid icon's “belief in human dignity” and ability to forgive.
British lawmakers normally reserve tributes for their own statesmen, but they packed into the House of Commons to pay their respects to South Africa's first black president, who died Thursday aged 95.
Cameron told parliament that Mandela had shown his character “not only in the determination with which he fought, but in the grace with which he won”.
“What sustained him throughout all was a belief in human dignity, that no one is naturally superior over anyone else,” Cameron said.
“Nearly three decades in prison could so easily have left him bitter. On his release he could have meted out vengeance on those who had done him so much wrong. But perhaps the most remarkable chapter of Mandela's story is how he took the opposite path.”
Cameron said the best way Britain could honour Mandela would be to make further efforts to eradicate poverty.
“It was a long walk to freedom, but the walk is over, freedom was won - and for that Nelson Mandela has the deepest respect of this House and his enduring place in history,” the prime minister said.
Cameron will be joined by all three surviving former British premiers - John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - at a massive memorial service for Mandela in Soweto on Tuesday, along with dozens of heads of state including US President Barack Obama.
The leader of the main opposition Labour party, Ed Miliband, described Mandela as “an enduring and unique symbol of courage, hope and the fight against injustice”.
Parliament erupted into laughter as Miliband recalled how Mandela attended the Labour party's conference in 2000 and, with typical wit, described himself as “an unemployed pensioner with a criminal record”.
The Labour leader also noted that “the history of our country was bound up with his” - a hint at Britain's role as a former colonial power in South Africa and as an ally of the apartheid regime.
But he added that Mandela himself had described Britain as “the second headquarters of our movement in exile”.
Labour MP Peter Hain, who grew up in South Africa and became a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner in Britain, raised another burst of laughter with his personal recollections of Mandela's “infectious capacity for mischief”.
On one occasion Mandela had kept the British prime minister waiting so that he could telephone Hain's mother to enquire about her broken leg. “This is Mandela from South Africa,” he told her. “Do you know who I am?”
Hain's parents were rare white voices against apartheid, but were forced to flee South Africa in 1966 because of their outspoken approach.