SOWETO, South Africa — In an outpouring of praise, remembrance, and celebration, scores of leaders from around the world, including President Obama, joined tens of thousands of South Africans in a vast rain-swept soccer stadium here Tuesday to pay common tribute to Nelson Mandela, whose struggle against
apartheid inspired his own country and many far beyond its borders.
Huge cheers greeted Obama as he rose to offer a eulogy that blended a deep, personal message with a broader appeal for Mandela’s values to survive him.
South Africans, swathed in their national colors, some wearing wraparounds bearing Mandela’s portrait, celebrated their former president as both an inspiration and an inherited memory for those raised in the post-apartheid era.
“To the people of South Africa — people of every race and every walk of life — the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” Obama said. “His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy.”
Sheets of driving rain swept across this former segregated township — an urban sprawl within sight of the glittery high rises of downtown Johannesburg — keeping some mourners away from the 95,000-capacity FNB Stadium where Mandela made his last public appearance during the soccer World Cup in 2010. The stadium was far from full as the start of the memorial approached.
“Even heaven is crying,” one woman in the crowd declared as the deluge continued. “We have lost an angel.”
For those tens of thousands who entered the stadium, the memorial service, part of a 10-day period of national mourning since Mandela died last Thursday, was a moment that fused revolutionary memories of the fight against apartheid with appeals for the values of forgiveness and reconciliation. Songs of the struggle, as the
antiapartheid campaign is known, blended with hymns and prayer.
Some stomped their feet as young protesters did during the years of protest that led to Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration.
As much as visiting dignitaries sought to underscore their association with Mandela, their presence here also reinforced South Africans’ pride in him.
The strains of South Africa’s national anthem — “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” or “God Bless Africa” — swelled over the stadium.
“It is hard to eulogize any man — to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person — their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul,” Obama said. “How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.”
The moment was not immune to more recent political undercurrents in advance of elections next year.
President Jacob Zuma was greeted with boos and whistles from a crowd that cheered President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Thabo Mbeki, former South African president, and, loudest of all, Obama.
Using Mandela’s clan name, Obama declared: “It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity, and truth. He changed laws, but also hearts.”
Striking a deeply personal note, he went on: “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. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what is best inside us.”
Nothando Dube, 31, left her home in Soweto at 5 a.m., first walking through the cold and then riding the rest of the way in a cab. She was at the stadium by 6 a.m., singing old struggle songs until the memorial began more than five hours later.