JOHANNESBURG: Presidents past and present, global figures and A-list celebrities made their way to South Africa on Monday to pay the world’s respects at a memorial service and state funeral for freedom icon Nelson Mandela.
More than 80,000 people will attend an impassioned, emotional tribute Tuesday to the country’s inspirational first black president at the FNB stadium in Soweto, where he made his last major public appearance for the 2010 World Cup final.
The service is seen as a final chance for grieving South Africans to unite in a mass celebration of Mandela’s life ahead of the more formal state funeral.
Although Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death on Thursday night was still a body blow for a country that had looked to his unassailable moral authority as a comforting constant in a time of uncertain social and economic change.
Permanent day and night vigils have been held outside the Johannesburg residence where he died — the mood alternating between one of profound loss and relief that his physical suffering was over.
“Madiba was our version, the South African version, of the great Mahatma Gandhi,” said Laloo Isu Chiba, a fellow prison inmate of Mandela’s on Robben Island.
“For many, many, many generations to come, it will be almost impossible to get a person … with his commitment, his dedication and his qualities,” Chiba said.
Sunday marked the formal start of a week-long state funeral for the man who forged a new multi-racial South Africa from the discredited remnants of the apartheid era he helped dismantle.
On Monday, South Africa’s recalled parliament will meet for a special session to honour Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison to lead his country out of the shadow of apartheid into a multi-racial democracy.
Mandela last appeared in the house in February 2010, on the 20th anniversary of his prison release.
His former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and grandson Mandla are both ruling African National Congress (ANC) members of parliament, but it was unclear if they would participate in the session.
“We hope some members of the Mandela family will be there,” ANC caucus spokesman Moloto Mothapo said.
Former president FW de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel peace Prize with Mandela, was also invited.
Winnie and Mandla both attended a Methodist service in Johannesburg on Sunday as part of a national day of prayer for Mandela observed in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples across the country.
President Jacob Zuma used the occasion to make a passionate public appeal for South Africans to unite behind Mandela’s ideals of equality, freedom and justice and to “keep his dream alive”.
US President Barack Obama together with his wife Michelle and three previous occupants of the White House were among the roughly 70 heads of state and government flying in from every corner of the globe.
While Obama will attend Tuesday’s memorial service at the Soweto stadium, others will arrive later in the week for Mandela’s burial on December 15 in his boyhood home of Qunu.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon are all expected, along with a long-list of international dignitaries and marquee celebrities.
One leader notable by his absence will be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, due to the costs involved, according to Israeli press reports.
Mandela’s fellow Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, who since 2009 has twice been denied a visa for South Africa, will also not attend, his spokesman said.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has announced that he will attend Tuesday’s memorial service.
Among the other world leaders scheduled to attend is Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan and more than a dozen other African heads of state and government.
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and singer-activist Bono, as well as British billionaire Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel are expected to be among the celebrity mourners.
Around 11,000 troops have been mobilised to ensure security and help with crowd control efforts during the week-long series of funeral events.
Prior to his burial, Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days from Wednesday in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria where was sworn in as president in 1994.
Each morning, his coffin will be carried through the streets of the capital in a funeral cortege, to give as many people as possible the chance to pay their final respects.