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.”

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