US President Barack Obama addresses the crowd during a memorial service for Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg yesterday.
SOWETO: US President Barack Obama led world tributes yesterday to Nelson Mandela, hailing him as “a giant of history” at a rain-soaked memorial attended by tens of thousands of South Africans united in proud, noisy celebration.
Obama was one of nearly 100 world leaders at the event in Soweto’s World Cup stadium, where songs of praise and rebellion, many harking back to the apartheid era that Mandela helped condemn to history, echoed down from the dancing crowds in the stands.
“It is hard to eulogise any man ... how much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice,” Obama said, after being introduced to wild cheers.
“He showed us the power of action, of taking risks on behalf of our ideals,” Obama said of the prisoner-turned-president whose life story earned uncommon universal respect.
In a nod to Mandela’s extraordinary global reach, popularity and influence, the Indian, Brazilian, Cuban and Namibian presidents all delivered eulogies extolling his courage and moral leadership.
But it was Obama’s impassioned tribute that really galvanised the crowd, which at times became impatient with the long roster of speakers and a poor sound system that dampened the spontaneity of the occasion.
The four-hour event began at midday with a stirring rendition of the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), led by a mass choir and picked up by the rest of the stadium.
Some 80,000 had been expected, but the venue was two-thirds full as the ceremony got under way under a curtain of rain.
The mood was upbeat, with people determined to celebrate the memory of one of the 20th century’s towering political figures.
In his tribute, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that Mandela had managed to unite people in death, much as he had in life. “Look around this stage ... we see leaders representing many points of view ... all here, all united,” he said.
Before taking to the lectern, Obama shook hands with Raul Castro, leader of long-time Cold War rival Cuba.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, received a huge ovation as she took her seat on the main stage erected at one end of the pitch.
In his tribute, Obama took a swipe at authoritarian rulers who spoke of embracing Mandela’s legacy without acting on it.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people,” he said.
South African President Jacob Zuma, who was roundly booed by sections of the crowd in a reflection of growing public dissatisfaction with the current generation of ANC leaders, hailed Mandela as a “fearless freedom fighter.”