|Leading a State delegation to pay tribute to late President of South Africa Nelson Mandela at the South African embassy in Ha Noi, President Truong Tan Sang writes in the funeral register book. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyen Khang
SOWETO, South Africa (VNS) — Tens of thousands of South Africans united in proud, noisy celebration yesterday at a rain-soaked emotional memorial service to global freedom icon Nelson Mandela, attended by presidents and princes and watched by millions around the world.
Songs of praise and revolution, many harking back to the apartheid era that Mandela helped condemn to history, echoed around the giant stadium in Soweto where close to 100 world leaders had come to pay tribute to a man whose life story earned uncommon universal respect.
The 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 with enthusiasm by the rest of the stadium.
Some 80,000 had been expected, but the venue was two-thirds full as the ceremony got underway under a curtain of rain that had been falling since the early morning.
Despite the profound sense of national sorrow triggered by Mandela's death last Thursday, the mood was upbeat, with people determined to celebrate the memory of one of the 20th century's towering political figures.
"His long walk is over, he can finally rest," African National Congress (ANC) Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an opening address.
South African President Jacob Zuma hailed Nelson Mandela as a fearless leader who touched the world, in the memorial service for the anti-apartheid icon.
"That we are Madiba's compatriots and that we lived in Madiba's time is a reason for great celebration," Zuma said.
"Everyone has had a Madiba moment. This world icon has touched their lives," he added, using the clan name by which many South Africans fondly refer to Mandela.
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.
US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro were both listed to deliver personal tributes, pausing a diplomatic rivalry dating back to the Cold War.
"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.
"He was not a bust made of marble, he was a man of flesh and blood."
Crowds had begun gathering before daybreak and, as the gates opened, they swarmed into the stadium, where Mandela made his last major public appearance at the 2010 World Cup final.
Wrapped in the South African flag or yellow-green coloured shawls printed with the slogan "Mandela Forever", they danced and sang – oblivious to the constant drizzle.
"He's God given, he's God taken. We will never stop to cherish him," said Shahim Ismail, who took a day off from the sports academy he runs in Johannesburg to attend the event.
"This is once in your life. This is history," said Noma Kova, 36. "I didn't want to watch this on TV."
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, received a huge ovation as she took her seat on the main stage constructed at one end of the pitch.
Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was also present.
The Indian and Brazilian presidents were also selected to deliver eulogies, reflecting Mandela's extraordinary global reach, popularity and influence.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were among the leaders attending the memorial ceremony.
"We were told it was appropriate to wear a black tie," Cameron said after arriving at the stadium in Soweto.
The memorial event was part of an extended state funeral that will culminate in Mandela's burial on Sunday in the rural village of Qunu where he spent his early childhood. — AFP