South Africa struggled Monday to meet the unprecedented logistical challenge of hosting close to 100 world leaders flying in from every corner of the globe for the state funeral of freedom icon Nelson Mandela.
“The world literally is coming to South Africa,” said the government’s head of public diplomacy, Clayson Monyela.
“I don’t think it has ever happened before,” Monyela said of the wave of 91 leaders, including US President Barack Obama, bearing down on the country.
Many will join the 80,000 people expected to cram Tuesday into the FNB stadium in Soweto to take part in a grand memorial service for their inspirational first black president.
Reflecting the depth and breadth of Mandela’s popularity, the event will see political foes Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro share the same stage in paying tribute to one of the towering political figures of the 20th century.
South African President Jacob Zuma will make the keynote address, and other speakers will include UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Four of Mandela’s adored grandchildren will speak for his family, while neither his widow, Graca Machel, nor his ex-wife Winne Madikizela-Mandela are listed on the programme.
The memorial service, in the venue where Mandela made his last major public appearance for the 2010 World Cup final, is seen as a final chance for grieving South Africans to unite in a mass celebration of his life ahead of the more formal state funeral.
Some 120,000 people will be able to watch the event on giant screens set up in three overflow stadiums in Johannesburg.
Although Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death on Thursday night still rocked a country that had looked to his unassailable moral authority as a comforting constant in a time of uncertain social and economic change.
“I don’t think you are ever prepared enough,” said Zelda la Grange, who was Mandela’s long-time personal assistant both during and after his presidency.
“We had prepared ourselves emotionally but still we are overcome by this feeling of loss and sadness,” La Grange said.
A single candle was lit 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 out of the shadow of apartheid into a multi-racial democracy.
The week-long observances will culminate Sunday in Mandela’s burial at a family plot in his boyhood home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.
The government has sought to dissuade A-list dignitaries from attending, citing Qunu’s rural location, the lack of amenities and limited space.
Ahead of the burial, 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.
Around 11,000 troops have been mobilised to ensure security and help with crowd control.
Despite the sudden influx of international dignitaries and the compressed preparation time, National Police spokesman Solomon Makgale insisted that the security apparatus could cope.
“Having so many heads of state is not a security headache for us. We’ve learned over the years,” Makgale said, adding that they would be “working closely” with the foreign leaders’ own security details.
As well as Obama and three previous occupants of the White House, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were all on the guest list.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who was among the first to arrive, visited the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg where he paid handsome tribute to a “giant for justice” whose “mighty life” touched millions.
Parliament met in special session 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.
Notable absentees include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who cited high travel and security costs, and Mandela’s fellow Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, who since 2009 has twice been denied a visa for South Africa.
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and singer-activist Bono, as well as British billionaire Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel were expected to be among the celebrity mourners. [AFP]