Despite the downpour, thousands of people converged under heavy skies with spirits soaring as they danced and sang to say farewell to the man ranked as the greatest cultural icon in modern history, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Mandela passed away last Thursday at age 95, and ever since the world has been celebrating his life and everything the anti-apartheid hero stood for.
The legacy of reconciliation that Nelson Mandela gifted to South Africa and the world was acknowledged at his memorial, as free world and communist leaders shared a podium. Obama shared the stage with China’s Vice-President Li Yuanchao and President Raul Castro of Cuba, with whom he shook hands with in a gesture that Mandela himself would have been proud of.
As Mandela’s huge family took their seats, the crowd welcomed them, singing: “Mandela, you’re my president.”
Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, to whom he remained close until his end, was one the first of the family members to arrive.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, made her first public appearance since his death as she arrived helped along by friends at the stadium. Wearing a black coat and dress, the Mozambican human rights campaigner linked arms as she made her way slowly into the bowels of the building. One of her rare public appearances came a month ago, when she was spotted at the premiere of the movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom tracing her husband’s journey from prisoner to president.
Machel barely left her husband’s bedside in the final six months of his life.
She maintained a near around-the-clock bedside vigil during the 84 days Mandela spent in a Pretoria hospital and the subsequent three months he spent at home before he died on December 5.
Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, Mandela’s second wife Winnie, were all welcomed with loud applause. US President Barack Obama enjoyed a rapturous welcome, but for current South African President Jacob Zuma, it was jeers and boos. South Africans didn’t even want to see his face on the large screen at the FNB Stadium, venue of the memorial service, as loud boos greeted his appearance on the screen.
Many South Africans are unhappy with Mr Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, remains the front-runner ahead of elections next year.
Mr Obama thanked South Africa for sharing Mandela with the world, and said the politician had taught us the power of action, but also the importance of ideas and reason.
“It is hard to eulogise any man … how much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice,” Mr Obama told the crowd and a worldwide TV and internet audience.
The US president compared Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln and urged the world to act on Mandela’s legacy by fighting inequality, poverty and racism. He said progress in the US and South Africa mustn’t cloud the fact there’s still work to be done.
Mr Obama called Mandela the last great liberator of the 21st century, and says he thinks about how to apply Mandela’s lessons to himself as a man and as president.
“And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man,” Mr Obama said.
After a mass choir led the crowd in the national anthem, followed by an interfaith prayer, it was said that Mandela’s long walk was finally over.
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 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.
Andrew Mlangeni, who was sentenced with Mandela at the Rivonia trial in 1964, and shared the neighbouring cell with him on Robben Island, said Mandela touched his heart, soul and life.
“Nelson Mandela was an inspiration to millions with his sacrifice,” he said. “He gave them hope when there was none.”
Paying their respects were 91 serving leaders and members of royal families, and 10 former heads of state. The guests included Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the UK’s David Cameron.
Nigerian Fola Folowosele, 27, had been visiting friends in South Africa when the news that Mandela had died broke last Thursday.
For Folowosele, there was never any doubt in his mind that he would stay to be part of the week-long state funeral that followed.
“He’s perhaps Africa’s greatest son, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.
Some in the crowd recalled treasured moments when they had seen or, in some cases, even met or spoken to the man they had come to remember.
“When you say Mandela, you are talking South Africa,” said Julenda Ntlekoana, a nurse who met Mandela when he visited her Johannesburg hospital after he retired from office.