World leaders and joyous, singing South Africans gathered to honor Nelson Mandela at the Soweto soccer stadium today. The stadium was two-thirds full amid cold, driving rain.
The crowds twice booed South African President Jacob Zuma, who was to give the keynote address at the service, which started an hour late. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, is the front-runner ahead of elections next year.
Crowds converged on 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.
Steady rain kept many people away. The 95,000-capacity stadium continued filling up during the ceremony, which began at noon local time with the singing of the national anthem.
The mood, though, was celebratory. A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance.
Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who succeeded Mandela, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and political rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators who sang praise for Mandela, seen by many South Africans as the father of the nation.
“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 CEO 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,” Lair 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 Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.
U.S. President Barack Obama landed in South Africa early Tuesday. Besides Obama, eulogies were to be delivered by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Other speakers include the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India, as well as Mandela’s grandchildren.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, were at the stadium. So were actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.
Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country.