It's fitting that the skies should pour down upon Johannesburg today as world leaders, celebrities, and tens of thousands of South Africans gather to honor their beloved leader, Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5.
South Africans traveled from all over the country, some waiting all night, to score seats in the soccer stadium where Mandela once delivered his first major speech after his release from 27 years in prison.
But despite the long treks and the day's gloomy weather, the people who crammed into the bright orange stadium seats were spirited, even joyful. They dressed in vibrant greens and yellows, wearing t-shirts and flags with Mandela's smiling face draped across. To fill the hours before the start of the service, South Africans danced, sang, and held each other tight.
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The four-hour memorial began quietly, as a sorrowful chant to "Tata Madiba" filled the air. "Tata" means "father," and "Madiba" is Mandela's Xhosa tribal name.
So powerful was Mandela's reach that his memorial has been billed as the largest gathering of global leaders — both past and present — in recent history. The list of speakers reads as a who's who of global politics.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as the presidents of Brazil, Namibia, India, Cuba, and South Africa took the stage to memorialize the man who united and helped democratize the fractured country.
Perhaps the most poignant speech, however, was the eulogy by America's first black president to South Africa's first black president. President Obama spoke of Mandela as a man who resisted being lifted to a saintly pedestal. "It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection — because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried — that we loved him so," Obama said.
"After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength," he said.
"Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: 'It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.'"
A state funeral will be held on Sunday in Mandela's ancestral hometown of Qunu, in South Africa's Eastern Cape, where he will be laid to rest.
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