Nelson Mandela memorial: South Africans join world leaders for 'biggest funeral send-off in decades'

As people poured in to take their seats, a party atmosphere took hold

Tens of thousands of South Africans joined leaders in Soweto on Tuesday for a memorial service for former president Nelson Mandela.

As people poured in to the FNB stadium to take their seats, a party atmosphere began to take hold as shouts, songs and anthems rang round the stadium. By the time the service was ready to start – 57 minutes later than scheduled - the well-wishers were in the mood for something of a celebration.

The send-off had been billed as the biggest funeral send-off in decades. There were not as many people as had been expected; persistent rain meant the 95,000 capacity stadium was only two-thirds full. But those who made their way here made up for the lack of numbers with passion and enthusiasm.

“We have to continue his legacy,” said John Vuisi, a 41-year-old man who was dancing and singing and punching his fist in the seats five rows from the very top of the stands.

Mr Vuisi had been here in 1990 when Mr Mandela was first released from jail and he had come to the stadium in 2010 when the former president was last seen in public, waving from the back of a golf cart during the football World Cup.

Now he had come again, three hours from his home in Mpumalanga, to pay his respects. He had travelled with a friend, Abednigo Bafana, and together they were chanting and dancing as the people around cheered and sang.

 “Mandela never lost his focus. He knew he had to reconcile the country,” said Mr Bafana, during a pause in the dancing. “He never got distracted.

In the days since the 95-year-old Nobel laureate passed away last week, South Africa has responded with a range of emotions. It has wept, it has prayed and it has reflected on Mr Mandela’s contribution to irreversibly altering a country in which until 1994 black South Africans could not even vote.

On Tuesday, even though the service was billed as a memorial, as world leaders and other dignitaries took their places on stage, it was clear that the crowd wanted to make some noise and celebrate the life of the man forever known as Madiba.

Among the leaders who took their places on the stage set to the edge of the playing area was Prime Minister David Cameron. Princes Charles will represent Britain at Mr Mandela’s funeral on Sunday

Nothemba Sitole and her friend Nomonte Jekeqa were also in the upper reaches of the stadium that is home to the Kaiser Chiefs football team. They were from Port Elizabeth but both worked as teachers in Elliotdale, a town close to Mr Mandela’s ancestral home in Qunu where he is due to be buried on Sunday.

Ms Sitole, 56, and Ms Jekeqa said the pupils were aged around 10, part of the so-called “Born Free generation” of youngsters who grew up after the fall of apartheid. As such, they said, it was often difficult to explain to their pupils the struggles they had experienced as youngsters. It was one of the reasons they had made the day-long journey by bus to be here.

“They don’t understand. We have to teach them and explain,” said Ms Sitole. “When we tell them what it was like, they think we are telling them lies.”

Officials said that more than 90 world leaders had confirmed their attendance at Tuesday’s event. Among them were friends and allies as well as foes.

The US was 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 sent President Raul Castro, while Zimbabwe was be represented by Robert Mugabe, reelected to a seventh term as president this August

As the various world leaders and dignitaries were announced and made their way to the stage, the crowds cheered or hissed, depending on the individual. There were decent cheers for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, louder applause still for the the family of Mr Mandela and his widow Graca Michel.

Yet as Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current leader, was announced there were widespread boos and whistles, mixed in with some cheers, so much so that the service’s official announcer appealed that the crowds ensure a “dignified” memorial service for Mr Mandela.

Since Mr Mandela passed away last week, a repeated theme from those mourning the late president is that those who followed in his place have not filled his shoes. Allegations of corruption and cronyism have been widely levelled.

Indeed, even as people gathered on Tuesday, they spoke of their fears for the future now that Mr Mandela had gone.

Mbuso Malanga, a 41-year management executive, had come with his family, setting off from their home at 2.30am. By 5.30am, Mr Malanga, his wife and three children were at the very front of one of the lines of people queuing up to enter the stadium.

“We are here to pay our respects to a man who was a great leader,” said Mr Malanga. “But I have fears, fears about the future. I have anxiety that the future is not so certain without Mandela.”

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam