Nelson Mandela memorial: South Africa's goodbye may be biggest send-off in history


It may be the biggest send-off in history. Barack Obama, Raul Castro and Robert Mugabe are among up to 100 global leaders set to arrive in South Africa during a week of mourning that will have few recent comparisons.

From Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai to Zambia’s Michael Sata, an A-Z of world leaders, along with a host of celebrities, are to come and pay their respects to former president Nelson Mandela.

Most of them will attend a memorial service to be held on Tuesday in a 95,000 capacity football stadium in Soweto. For the organisers, it is a vast logistical and security challenge.

“It’s unprecedented. I don’t think there has been a funeral service like it in recent memory,” Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for South Africa’s foreign ministry, told The Independent. “I don’t remember any other.”

As workmen at the FNB stadium in Soweto continued erecting a stage and bulletproof glass to protect the VIPs attending the memorial event, government officials continued to keep tally of the number of confirmations. By Monday evening, the number had reached 91. Mr Monyela suggested the likely scale of the event would match that of the state funeral Britain organised for Winston Churchill in 1965.

The leaders arriving in South Africa include friends and allies as well as those who do not see eye to eye. The US is being represented by Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, former presidents George W Bush, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and a 23-strong Congressional delegation. Cuba is sending President Raul Castro, while Zimbabwe is to be represented by Robert Mugabe, reelected to a seventh term as president this August.

Prime Minister David Cameron is to attend the Soweto memorial while Prince Charles will travel to Qunu, Mr Mandela’s family home, to represent Britain at the funeral service to be held on Sunday. Among the most notable figures not expected to attend are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who claimed high travel and security costs were keeping him away, and Mr Mandela’s fellow Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, who has twice been refused a visa for South Africa since 2009.

In addition to the politicians and heads of state, a flurry of entertainers and celebrities are also said to be on their way to South Africa. Among those reportedly taking part are Oprah Winfrey, Bono, Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel. Reports suggested members of the Spice Girls – who travelled to South Africa in 1997 and met Mr Mandela with Prince Charles – may also be on route but representatives for the group failed to respond to inquiries.

Yet for all the attention being paid to the VIP guests due to travel to Soweto, it is ordinary South Africans who will make up the majority of the crowd in the stadium and at nearby overflow sites with large television screens that are being organised.

“I have to go. When I heard there was going to be a memorial I decided i had to go,” said Gloria Nhumalo, 23, who works at petrol station in the Melville neighbourhood of Johannesburg and who has a day off on Tuesday. She said she would set off with two family members at 7am for the event to honour the former president. “He gave us our freedom.”

The memorial will include tributes from members of Mr Mandela’s family, his friend and former Robben Island inmate Andrew Mlangeni, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as Mr Obama, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Vice-President Li Yuanchao of China, India’s President Pranab Mukherjee, Mr Castro and Namibia’s Hifikepunye Pohamba.

According to an order of service released by officials on Monday evening, the main speech will be delivered by South African President Jacob Zuma while Bishop Ivan Abrahams will deliver a sermon.

The hours-long memorial service is being held in a huge sports stadium that has huge symbolism for those involved in the country’s freedom struggle.

It was in that stadium, also known as Soccer City, on February 13 1990 that Mr Mandela addressed roaring crowds, punching their fists into the air, two days after being released from prison. Twenty years later, increasingly frail, it was also where he made his final public appearance, waving to supporters and football fans alike from the back of a golf cart at the World Cup final.

The suggestion by the South African authorities that the number of dignitaries could be the highest ever appears to be a fair prediction. The Associated Press reported that Churchill’s funeral was attended by “four kings, two queens, presidents,  prime ministers and statesmen from 113 nations”.

The 1963 funeral of President John F Kennedy in Washington was attended by 28 presidents, prime ministers and kings. Pope John Paul II’s 2005 funeral was attended by dignitaries from more than 80 countries. Meanwhile, the 1995 funeral of assassinated Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Yitzhak Rabin, was attended by more than 40 presidents or prime ministers.

After Tuesday’s event, Mr Mandela’s remains will lie in state for three days at the government buildings in Pretoria, the same where he was sworn in as president in 1994. He will be buried on Sunday in Qunu, 450 miles south of Johannesburg, at an event only a few world leaders are expected to attend.

Despite the number of high profile figures due to attend and the complications and security challenges involved, the authorities insist the events will go off smoothly. Around 11,000 troops have been mobilised to help with security and while it has not been widely publicised, the authorities have been preparing for these events for several years.

Mr Monyela, the foreign ministry spokesman, insisted things were going according to plan. “The plan is being executed as we speak. We have the required  expertise and skills. We have handled major events before and we have the blue-print in place,” he said. “We are on tops of things.”