World leaders, at the memorial ceremony for former South African President, Nelson Mandela, yesterday in Soweto, were unanimous in their tributes to the late anti-Apartheid hero, who they described as a gift to humanity.
The United States President, Barack Obama, described Mandela as a giant of history.
Obama said: “To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of states and government, past and present; distinguished guests, it is a singular honour to be with you today, to celebrate a life like no other.
“To the people of South Africa, people of every race and walk of life, the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us. His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph.
“It is hard to eulogise any man— to capture in words not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person.
“Their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process moved billions around the world.
Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century.
“Like Gandhi, he would lead a resistance movement— a movement that at its start had little prospect for success. Like Dr. King, he would give potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.
“He would endure a brutal imprisonment that began in the time of Kennedy and Khrushchev, and reached the final days of the Cold War.
“Emerging from prison, without the force of arms, he would, like Abraham Lincoln, hold his country together when it threatened to break apart. And like America’s Founding Fathers, he would erect a constitutional order to preserve freedom for future generations.
“The questions we face today are how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war.
“These things do not have easy answers. But there were no easy answers in front of that child born in World War I. Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.
“South Africa shows that is true. South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace, justice and opportunity. We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. “
The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon said: “We join together in sorrow for a mighty loss and the celebration of a mighty life.
“Nelson Mandela was more than one of the greatest leaders of our time. He was one of our greatest teachers. He taught by example, he sacrificed so much and was willing to give up everything for freedom, equality and justice. His compassion stands out most.”
Former archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu said: “We have come here and we are mourning a little bit. Mostly we’re saying ‘God, we think you are not a bad God.
“You gave us an incredible gift. We have three presidents of the United States and 75 heads of state. A friend in India wrote to us to say, ‘India is observing five days of mourning’.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said: ”We were told it was appropriate to wear a black tie. But when you come and you hear this great noise and this great atmosphere of celebration, it is clear that people here in South Africa want to say goodbye to this great man. “To commemorate what he did; also to celebrate his life and celebrate his legacy.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said: “He also was a source of inspiration for similar struggles in Brazil and across South America. His fight reached way beyond his nation’s borders and inspired young men and women to fight for independence and social justice.”
China’s Vice President, Li Yuanchao, said through a translator: “Mr. Mandela was the pride of the African people. He has dedicated his entire life to the development and progress of the African content.”
African National Congress, ANC, Vice President Cyril Ramaphosa, in an opening address, said “His long walk is over, he can finally rest,”
On several occasions, Ramaphosa felt forced to admonish boisterous sections of the crowd for chanting during the speeches.
Similarly, South African President Jacob Zuma said: ”In his honour, we commit ourselves to continue to build a nation based on democratic values, human dignity and democracy.”
Crowds had begun gathering at the Soweto stadium before daybreak and, as the gates opened, they swarmed inside the venue 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.
News of Mandela’s death at his home in Johannesburg resonated around the world, triggering a wave of loving admiration from political and religious leaders, some of whom agree on little else.
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.
Although Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death was a body blow for this recently reborn nation.
He had been out of public life for more than a decade, but South Africans looked to his unassailable moral authority as a comforting constant in a time of uncertain social and economic change.
Ahead of the burial in Qunu, Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days from Wednesday in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria where he was sworn in as president in 1994.
Each morning, his coffin will be borne through the streets of the capital in a funeral cortege.