Tens of thousands of South Africans gathered Tuesday to bid farewell to anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, a man loved around the globe for his long, difficult fight to bring equality to South Africa. The event at a Johannesburg soccer stadium brought together dignitaries and celebrities from around the world -- as well as masses of ordinary South Africans who braved long waits and bad weather to pay tribute to the man everyone here knows simply as “Tata.”
Cold, rainy weather didn’t stop more than 60,000 South Africans -- and many dignitaries from abroad -- from descending on this Johannesburg soccer stadium to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela.
The former president and anti-apartheid icon died Thursday at the age of 95, after a long battle with a recurring lung infection.
He is admired in South Africa and around the world for leading the intense struggle to end South Africa’s racist apartheid regime. He spent 27 years in prison for his opposition to the regime, and emerged to become South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
What truly makes him extraordinary was his transformation during those decades in prison from an angry youth leader to a wise statesman who stressed the need for racial reconciliation in this deeply divided nation.
World leaders and celebrities also converged on the stadium, which was the site of Mandela’s last public appearance in 2010, at the final of the soccer World Cup.
Among them was U.S. President Barack Obama
, who said that Mandela was his role model.
“Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities - to others, and to myself - and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today," he said. "And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength -- for his largeness of spirit -- somewhere inside ourselves."
Watch clips of Obama's eulogy remarks
Johannesburg resident Thuli Fihla, 45, said she couldn’t miss this event. She credited Mandela for helping her get ahead in life.
“I actually woke up at 3:30 so I’ve been up very early and I couldn’t sleep early. But I mean, as a South African, and someone who has seen apartheid before and now witnessed the new democracy, there was no way I could miss this day," she said. "Mandela is everything to us. I’ve got the kind of job that I have now because of Mandela. I have the kind of home that I have now because of Mandela. You know, everything we have in this country, we owe to Mandela and his colleagues.”
Beloved as he was, Mandela was still a politician and his memorial was not free of politics. His death has coincided with a rising swell of disapproval for President Jacob Zuma, who has been the target of a serious corruption investigation.
The crowd booed Zuma numerous times during the service, while pointedly cheering for his predecessor Thabo Mbeki and even for the nation’s last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk.
In his eulogy, Zuma referred to Mandela by his clan name, Madiba.
“We do not call Madiba the father of our rainbow nation merely for political correctness and relevance. We do so because he laid a firm foundation for the South Africa of our dreams - one that is united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous,” he said.
Mandela’s body will now go to the capital, Pretoria, where it will lie in state for three days. He will then be buried in a family ceremony in his ancestral home of Qunu. Each province will also hold memorial ceremonies.
At the ceremony, a gospel choir and the military band put their feelings about Mandela into a universal language, with the song that Mandela used as a rallying cry during the struggle to bring freedom to South Africa.
"Nkosi Sikel’ iAfrica," a liberation song that Mandela had incorporated into the national anthem. Its verses, in a mix of Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English, describe the dreams of this nation: stop wars and suffering, save our nation, the nation of South Africa.
Fitting words for a man who changed not just his nation, but the world.