- POSTED: 10 Dec 2013 19:19
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Tens of thousands of South Africans united in proud celebration on Tuesday at a rain-soaked emotional memorial service to global freedom icon Nelson Mandela, attended by presidents and princes and watched by millions around the world.
SOWETO, South Africa - Tens of thousands of South Africans united in proud celebration on Tuesday at a rain-soaked emotional memorial service to global freedom icon Nelson Mandela, attended by presidents and princes and watched by millions around the world.
Close to 100 world leaders were believed to be among the crowd in the World Cup stadium in Soweto -- the crucible of Mandela's anti-apartheid struggle -- to bid farewell to a man whose life story earned uncommon universal respect.
The event began at midday (1000 GMT) with a stirring rendition of the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (God Bless Africa), led by a mass choir and picked up with enthusiasm by the rest of the stadium.
Some 80,000 had been expected, but the venue was two-thirds full as the ceremony got underway in steady rain that had been falling since the early morning.
Three other stadiums, set up as overflow venues with giant screens, were almost completely empty.
Despite the profound sense of national sorrow triggered by Mandela's death last Thursday, the mood was upbeat, with people determined to celebrate the memory of one of the 20th century's towering political figures.
"He's God given, he's God taken. We will never stop to cherish him," said Shahim Ismail, who took a day off from the sports academy he runs in Johannesburg to attend the event.
Crowds had begun gathering before daybreak and, as the gates opened, they swarmed into the stadium, looking for a vantage point on the sloped terracing.
Wrapped in the South African flag or yellow-green coloured shawls printed with the slogan "Mandela Forever," they danced and sang -- oblivious to the constant drizzle.
"This is once in your life. This is history," said Noma Kova, 36. "I didn't want to watch this on TV."
Many of the songs flowing from the terraces before the formal ceremony began harked back to the apartheid-era struggle, but the atmosphere was one of inclusion.
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, received a huge ovation as she took her seat on the main stage constructed at one end of the pitch.
Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was also present.
News of Mandela's death at his home in Johannesburg resonated around the world, triggering a wave of loving admiration from political and religious leaders, some of whom agree on little else.
Global rivalries put on pause
The presidents of the United States and Cuba were among those due to share the memorial stage, pausing rivalries that date back to the Cold War to pay tribute as millions around the world looked on.
The Indian and Brazilian presidents were also selected to deliver eulogies, reflecting Mandela's extraordinary global reach, popularity and influence.
Obama and his wife Michelle flew in on Air Force One early in the morning, together with former president George W. Bush and his wife Laura.
Two other ex-presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, were arriving separately.
The memorial event was 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.
Although Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death was a body blow for this recently reborn nation.
He had been out of public life for more than a decade, but 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."
On Monday, his eldest daughter Makaziwe Mandela told how her father spent a "wonderful" week surrounded by family before he died.
"The children were there, the grandchildren were there ... so we are always around him, even at the last moment," she told the BBC.
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.
Celebrating a life and a legacy
British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were all on the state funeral guest list.
"We were told it was appropriate to wear a black tie," Cameron said after arriving at the stadium in Soweto.
"But when you come and your hear this great noise and this great atmosphere of celebration, it is clear that people here in South Africa want to, yes, say goodbye to this great man, yes commemorate what he did, but also celebrate his life and celebrate his legacy," he said.
Africa was represented by Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan and more than a dozen other heads of state and government.
Singer-activist Bono and South African actress Charlize Theron were among the celebrity mourners.
One radiant celebrant in the crowd, Musa Mbele, his clothes drenched by the rain, declined the offer of an umbrella.
"If he was able to stay behind bars for 27 years for us, what is one day, just one rain-drenched day?" he said.