JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — A teeming, colourful sea of mourners danced and sang under a cold, exhilarating South African downpour Tuesday as tens of thousands of people — including political leaders from around the world — gathered to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela.
A powerful coalition of politically diverse emissaries from across Canada was on hand for the four-hour ceremony, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and four of his predecessors — Jean Chrétien, Kim Campbell, Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark.
“Today was more a celebration than a funeral,” Harper said as the ceremony came to a close.
“A celebration of a very long life, but a very important life.”
He called Mandela “one of the giants of history.”
A steady, cold rain — hailed by some as a blessing in South African culture — appeared to keep many away from the Soweto soccer stadium, where those who did brave the elements heard stirring calls to action from the likes of U.S. President Barack Obama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Chrétien said the exuberance made it unlike any memorial he has seen.
“It is a great occasion of respect because he’s admired by everybody,” he said.
Chrétien recalled that his government made Mandela an honorary citizen of Canada.
“Whenever he would meet me, he would say, ‘Hi, my prime minister.”’
At one point during the proceedings, while the rest of the delegation sat expressionless as they watched the proceedings, Campbell could be seen on her feet, dancing with abandon along with the crowd.
“Obama in great form,” Campbell enthused on Twitter. “We are cold, wet but still exhilarated!”
Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who was also part of the delegation, worked for Mandela in the early 1990s, when South Africa was in transition out of apartheid and developing a new constitution.
“He was a very tough taskmaster,” Redford said as she reflected on her time with Mandela.
“He always had a sense of humour and I think that’s what kept him on track.”
The soaking rain may have dampened attendance — thousands of seats remained unoccupied throughout the morning — but it could not beat down the exuberance as South Africans blended tears with joy in a celebration of the life of a man they see as the father of their country.
“In our culture the rain is a blessing,” said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. “Only great, great people are memorialized with it. Rain is life. This is perfect weather for us on this occasion.”
It initially appeared that only 11 members of the Canadian delegation would be allowed inside the stadium after a decision taken earlier by the South African protocol office.
The Prime Minister’s Office was told that Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, as well as Redford, three other premiers and several MPs who made the 18-hour journey for the service, would not be allowed inside.
However, all of the Canadians were able to get in during the confusion that reigned at security checkpoints as thousands of people poured through.
Mulcair was elated that he was able to attend.
Describing the memorial as “very emotional,” he said South Africans have heeded the message of peace that Mandela gave them and are using it in the continued effort to build their nation.
“People realize that Nelson Mandela accomplished a great deal, but there’s also a sense that they understand it’s not over, that they’ve got to keep going.
“That’s why it’s important for Canada to be there,” he said.
“To be a friend . . . to help with our own experience.”
Harper and his wife, Laureen were also joined by former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean, Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo and Gaston Barban, Canada’s high commissioner to South Africa.
They joined heads of state and government from around the world, as well as international celebrities and business leaders.
“It’s truly an honour to be here with governors general and all the former prime ministers,” said Redford.
For Atleo, the words spoken by some of Mandela’s grandchildren drew connections with aboriginal struggles in Canada.
And he said Canada can learn from the former South African president.
“(Mandela) changed the conversation, from conflict to reconciliation, from poverty to sharing, from inequality to equality,” Atleo said.
“We as well have a truth and reconciliation commission happening right now, just like occurred in South Africa.”
“So, too, do we need to follow suit, and have structural changes occur in Canada.”
Among the other notables in attendance at the memorial were French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Cuban President Raul Castro. Celebrities included South African actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.
Harper and company were greeted with applause when they were announced to the crowd, although the response was dwarfed by the thunderous roar that greeted the American delegation, which included Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The crowd erupted in songs of celebration and loud cheers whenever Mandela’s name was spoken during the proceedings. But they booed the arrival of President Jacob Zuma, whose tenure has been troubled by scandals.
The Canadians watched the services with keen interest. Laureen Harper seemed especially moved by the celebrations, occasionally leaning forward in her seat to get a better view of the tumult.
Before heading to the stadium, Harper had an informal breakfast with prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Key from Australia and New Zealand.
Harper’s spokesman Carl Vallee would not say what the leaders discussed.
While the boisterous memorial was going on, a more muted tribute rang out over Ottawa. The Peace Tower bells played the song Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the official anthem of Mandela’s African National Congress during the apartheid era and a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement
Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, before the burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Amid cheers and song for the prisoner who became peacemaker, President Barack Obama energized tens of thousands of spectators and nearly 100 visiting heads of state Tuesday with a plea for the world to emulate Nelson Mandela, “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”
Obama’s eulogy was the rhetorical highlight of a memorial service in which South Africans celebrated Mandela’s life with singing and dancing, often during dignitaries’ speeches. They also booed their own president and were chided by a top government official who said: “Let’s not embarrass ourselves.”
Lashing rain lent a freewheeling aspect to the memorial, with people taking shelter in the stadium’s wide hallways, where they sang anti-apartheid anthems from the 1970s and 1980s. Foul weather kept many away, and the 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.
Obama implored people to embrace Mandela’s universal message of peace and justice, comparing the South African leader to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Mandela spent 27 years in prison under a racist regime, and promoted forgiveness and reconciliation when he was finally freed.
“We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama said. “But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world — you can make his life’s work your own.”
He hailed Mandela, who died Thursday at 95, as the unlikely leader of a movement that gave “potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice. ”
“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,” Obama said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country, said he was inspired by Mandela as a student. The speech was greeted with thunderous applause.
Obama pointed out that “around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.”
Among the heads of state and government were some from countries like Cuba that don’t hold fully democratic elections. On the way to the podium, Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, underscoring a recent warming of relations between their countries.
Other attending leaders criticized for their human rights records were Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema and Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh.
In contrast to the wild applause given to Obama, South African President Jacob Zuma was booed. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, remains the front-runner ahead of elections next year.
Mandela’s record after he was elected in the first all-race elections in 1994 has faced some criticism, most of it indirect because he is such a revered figure.
He did not push for major restructuring of the economy, fearing it could alienate whites who still control most of South African industry. Today, the country struggles with economic inequality, though Mandela’s moral stature sets him far apart from his successors.
“Mandela was a very humble man, and he gave himself to the world. He sacrificed time with his family for us and for me. It is a privilege to be here, it is a humbling experience,” said 35-year-old Dipolelo Moshe, who works for a marketing company.
She had a South African flag draped over her shoulders and carried a big photo of Mandela as she stood in line at the stadium.
Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said he grew up during white rule in a “privileged position” as a white South African and that Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.
“His reconciliation allowed whites to be released themselves,” Laird said. “I honestly don’t think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela.”
A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance.
Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators as he called Mandela “one of our greatest teachers.”
“He taught by example. He sacrificed so much … for freedom and equality, for democracy and justice,” Ban said.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, gave each other a long hug before the ceremonies began.
Actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono were among the celebrities paying final tribute.
Symbolically, Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize. De Klerk, a political rival who became friends with Mandela, was also in the stadium.
In his Nobel acceptance speech at the time, Mandela said: “We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born.”
The rain was seen as a blessing among many of South Africa’s majority black population.
“Only great, great people are memorialized with it,” said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. “Rain is life. This is perfect weather for us on this occasion.”
People blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horn that was widely used during the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa, and sang songs from the era of the anti-apartheid struggle decades earlier.
“It is a moment of sadness celebrated by song and dance, which is what we South Africans do,” said Xolisa Madywabe, CEO of a South African investment firm.
After Tuesday’s memorial, Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, once the seat of white power, before burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.