World leaders and joyous, singing South Africans honored former South African president Nelson Mandela yesterday at a rainy Soweto soccer stadium where US President Barack Obama praised him as a “giant of history” and the last great liberator of the 20th century.
“Over thirty 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,” said Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country.
Those in the stadium gave roars of approval to Obama’s speech.
However, South African President Jacob Zuma was booed.
Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, remains the front-runner ahead of elections next year.
Amid heavy rains, crowds came to FNB Stadium in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela embodied as a prisoner of white rule for 27 years and then during a peril-fraught transition to the all-race elections that made him president.
However, the weather and public transportation problems kept many people away. The 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.
Some of the dozens of trains reserved to ferry people to the stadium were delayed due to a power failure. A Metrorail services spokeswoman, Lilian Mofokeng, said more than 30,000 mourners were successfully transported by train.
The mood was celebratory. A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance.
As Obama walked to the podium, he and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators who sang praise for Mandela.
“I would not have the life I have today if it was not for him,” said Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a postgraduate marketing student who arrived hours before the stadium gates opened. “He was jailed so we could have our freedom.”
Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old chief executive of a health insurance company, said in the stadium that he grew up during white rule in a “privileged position” as a white South African and that Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.
“His reconciliation allowed whites to be released themselves,” Laird said. “I honestly don’t think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela.”
Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived amid an enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died on Thursday last week at the age of 95.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were at the stadium, and gave each other a long hug before the ceremonies began. So were actress Charlize Theron and singer Bono.
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Mandela and South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country.