Presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and royals joined tens of thousands of South Africans to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, in a memorial service celebrating a man seen as a global symbol of reconciliation.
In what has been billed as one of the largest gatherings of global leaders in recent history, world leaders from US President Barack Obama to Cuba’s Raul Castro gathered alongside street sweepers, actors and religious figures to pay tribute to the revered statesman, who died last Thursday, aged 95.
Despite the pouring rain, the atmosphere inside Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium was celebratory, with people dancing, blowing vuvuzelas, plastic horns and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle.
Many carried banners honouring “Madiba”, Mandela’s traditional clan name, or his picture. Others were draped in materials covered with his face or the green, yellow, black, red and blue colours of the South African flag.
Some had skipped work and lined up for hours to secure seats so that they could pay their respects at the stadium, where Mandela delivered his first major speech after his release from 27 years in prison.
The four-hour service brought much of South Africa to a stop.
It began with the national anthem before South Africa’s presidents – past and present – were introduced. There was a loud cheer from the crowd for Frederick de Klerk, the last leader of white South Africa, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for helping to end apartheid.
The joyous cries died down as speeches from Mandela’s family and friends, as well as a fellow Robben Island prison inmate, began. Anguished faces listened quietly as a sorrowful chant to “Tata Madiba” filled the air. “Tata” means “father” in Mandela’s Xhosa tribe.
Mandela’s gift for uniting foes across political and racial divides was still evident at the service.
Walking up the stairs onto the stage to deliver his speech, Obama shook hands with Castro, an unprecedented gesture between the leaders of two nations that have been at loggerheads for more than half a century.
Obama, who like Mandela was his nation’s first black president, has cited Mandela as his own inspiration for entering politics.
“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,” he said, calling him a “giant of history”.
To roaring applause, he said the icon’s death should prompt self-reflection.
“With honesty, regardless of our station or our circumstance, we must ask: How well have I applied his lessons in my own life?” Obama said.
“It is a question I ask myself – as a man and as a president. We know that like South Africa, the United States had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation. As was true here, it took sacrifice – the sacrifices of countless people, known and unknown – to see the dawn of a new day.”
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon said: “South Africa has lost a hero, they have lost a father. The world has lost a beloved friend and mentor…Nelson Mandela was more than one of the greatest leaders of our time, he was one of the greatest teachers. And he taught by example.”
The stadium, which can seat around 90,000 people, was filled with guests including British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Prince of Wales, French President Francois Hollande and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and South African President Jacob Zuma were among the first to arrive at the stadium.
Members of The Elders, a group of retired statesmen founded by Mandela and others, were also in attendance, including former UN secretary general Kofi Annan and former US President Jimmy Carter.
The crowds cheered loudly and clapped as a huge screen showed famous faces.
The world of entertainment was also well represented, with South African actress Charlize Theron and U2’s Bono in attendance. Celebrity guests also included Oprah Winfrey and Naomi Campbell.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife Winnie Mandela embraced and kissed as they arrived.
Paying tribute to his uncle, Gen Thanduxolo Mandela gave thanks for the outpouring of respect from around the world.
“This universal show of unity is a true reflection of all that Madiba stood for – peace, justice, unity of all mankind,” he said.
“Let us pledge to keep Madiba’s dream alive.”
With 91 heads of State attending, security was tight.
Working off plans developed for years in secret, the South African government planned to use an elite military task force, sniper teams and canine teams to help secure the stadium. In addition, helicopters and military jets frequently fly overhead.
The event rivaled other significant State funerals in recent decades, such as that of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1965 and the 2008 funeral of Pope John Paul II, which attracted some two million people to Rome – among them four kings, five queens, at least 70 presidents and prime ministers and the leaders of 14 other faiths.