About 100 world leaders including US President Barack Obama and Cuba's Raul Castro will gather in Johannesburg on Tuesday to eulogise Nelson Mandela at a large memorial service in the Soweto football stadium where he made his last public appearance.
Close to 100 world leaders were among 85,000 people expected to fill the FNB stadium in Soweto – the crucible of Mandela's anti-apartheid struggle – to bid farewell to the unifying global icon.
Five hours before the memorial began, large crowds had already gathered in a light drizzle, hoping for one of the first-comer tickets.
Wrapped in South African flags or yellow-green shawls printed with the slogan "Mandela Forever", they danced and jogged towards the stadium entrance, some singing in Zulu: "Mandela is not sleeping, just kneeling."
Thousands more were boarding free trains from central Johannesurg.
News of Mandela's death at his home in Johannesburg on Thursday resonated around the world, triggering a wave of affection and praise from political and religious leaders, some of whom agree on little else.
Eclectic mix of world leaders
The presidents of the United States and Cuba are among those who will share the memorial 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 the prisoner-turned-president's burial on Sunday in the rural village of Qunu where he spent his early childhood.
About 11,000 soldiers have been deployed as part of a massive security operation to ensure order as South Africans unite in a mass celebration of Mandela's life ahead of the more formal lying-in-state.
The Indian and Brazilian presidents will deliver eulogies on Tuesday, 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 on behalf of his family. Three other Johannesburg stadiums will have giant screens allowing 120,000 other South Africans to watch the event.
While Mandela had been out of public life for more than a decade, South Africans looked to his 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 from 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."
A single candle was lit on 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 into a multi-racial democracy.
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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, [his wife] Graca was there, so we are always around him, even at the last moment," she told the BBC.
Before 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.
As well as Obama and three previous occupants of the White House, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande and Afghan President Hamid Karzai will attend Tuesday's ceremony.
Parliament met for a special tribute session on 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.
US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, British billionaire Richard Branson and Irish singer-activist Bono were expected to be among the celebrities in attendance.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2013-12-10