SOWETO: Tens of thousands of grieving South Africans will sit side-by-side with presidents, priests, queens and sheikhs on Tuesday at a memorial service for unifying global icon Nelson Mandela.
Close to 100 world leaders and 80,000 South Africans will gather at a stadium in Soweto — the crucible of Mandela’s anti-apartheid struggle — to bid farewell to a man whose life story earned uncommon universal respect.
News of the prisoner-turned-president’s death at his home in Johannesburg on Thursday resonated around the world, triggering a wave of loving admiration from political and religious leaders, some of whom agree on little else.
The presidents of the United States and Cuba are among those who will share a stage, pausing rivalries that date back to the Cold War to pay tribute as millions around the world look on.
The event is part of an extended state funeral that will culminate in Mandela’s burial on Sunday in the rural village of Qunu where he spent his early childhood.
A massive security operation will swing into place as South Africans grab their final chance to unite in a mass celebration of Mandela’s life ahead of the more formal lying in state.
The Indian and Brazilian presidents will also speak, reflecting the extraordinary global reach, popularity and influence of one of the 20th century’s towering political figures.
Four of Mandela’s grandchildren will speak for his family, while neither his widow, Graca Machel, nor his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela are listed on the programme.
Some 120,000 people will be able to watch 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 was a body blow for this recently reborn nation.
Although Mandela had been out of public life for more than a decade, South Africans looked to his unassailable moral authority as a comforting constant in a time of uncertain social and economic change.
On the eve of the memorial Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu described Mandela as a “magician” who conjured a united nation out of a country teetering on the brink of civil war.
“Everybody was saying we would go up in flames,” he said. “He really was like a magician with a magic wand, turning us into this glorious, multi-coloured rainbow people.
“This repulsive caterpillar, South Africa, that used to be the world’s pariah, he turned into a beautiful, beautiful butterfly.”
A single candle was lit Monday in Mandela’s tiny prison cell on Robben Island, where he spent the harshest of his 27 years in apartheid jails, before emerging to lead his country out of the shadow of apartheid into a multi-racial democracy.
Ahead of the burial in Qunu, Mandela’s 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 borne 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.
As well as Obama and three previous occupants of the White House, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were all on the guest list.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who was among the first to arrive, paid handsome tribute to a “giant for justice” whose “mighty life” touched millions.
Parliament met in special session Monday, with MPs carrying single red roses as they entered the assembly building that was flanked by giant portraits of Mandela in tribal dress and as an elder statesman.
Opposition leader Helen Zille said every politician had a duty to carry forward Mandela’s ideals of justice and equality for all.
“He has handed the baton to us and we dare not drop it,” Zille said. Africa will be represented at the funeral 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 were expected to be among the celebrity mourners. (AFP)