Nelson Mandela’s “long walk” was over.
His state memorial service Tuesday began with rousing cheers, and the words “Comrades! Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela! Long live!” in the style of the liberation struggle meetings of the African National Congress going back decades.
“In many ways we are here to tell Madiba [Mandela's clan name] that his long walk is over, that he can finally rest. His long walk is over but ours is only beginning,” said South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, opening the memorial.
Thousands filed into the 94,000-seat soccer stadium in Soweto. Low gray clouds and misty rain cast a somber mood, but South Africans stunned the world with a ceremony bursting with joyful music and celebration, paying tribute to Mandela’s sacrifice of 27 years in prison, his fight against apartheid, his triumph in negotiating a peaceful end to the system and his emergence as leader of his nation.
The mourners sang rousing liberation struggle songs, danced, ululated, whistled and blasted vuvuzelas — the plastic trumpets that South Africans blow at soccer matches and joyful occasions, waiting for the service to begin.
The rain, Ramaphosa said, was a blessing, who said that in South African culture, “if it rains when you are buried it means the gods are welcoming you and the gates of heaven are opening.”
Outside the stadium, shaped like a great calabash, or African bowl fashioned from a gourd, flags flew at half-staff and the crowd pressed forward, wearing ANC regalia in the party’s colors of green, gold and black. Women were clad in ANC clothing, many with dresses bearing Mandela’s face.
Big video screens at either end of the stadium displayed photographs of Mandela’s beaming face above the seas of brightly colored umbrellas. ANC General Secretary Gwede Mantashe also welcomed the rain, saying it was a blessing confirming what an inspirational life Mandela led.
The stadium erupted with emotion at the arrival of President Jacob Zuma, who, like Mandela, spent years in prison on Robben Island for opposing apartehid. Deafening cheers rang out as former President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s deputy and later successor, took his seat, and later as Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, arrived looking drawn and haggard, with daughters Zenani and Zindzi.
Graca Machel, Mandela’s widow, embraced Madikizela-Mandela before she took her seat.
Former President F.W. de Klerk, who negotiated an end to white-minority rule with Mandela, was also cheered heartily.
There was a rapturous welcome for other leaders, such as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
President Obama’s plane landed just after 7 a.m., and his car was caught in morning traffic, according to local reports.
More than 90 other world leaders arrived, along with celebrities including Naomi Campbell and Oprah Winfrey. The service began about a hour late with the South African national anthem, followed by interfaith prayers.
By the time the memorial began at noon, many of the stadium seats remained empty, suggesting logistical and traffic problems.
The stadium is the last place Nelson Mandela appeared in public, at the close of the 2010 soccer World Cup, hosted by South Africa.
Obama was to speak at the service as the service continued, along with Zuma, members of the Mandela family and global leaders.
One of Mandela’s closest friends, Andrew Mlangeni, who occupied the cell next to him at Robben Island, was to speak first, followed by a representative of the Mandela family, Gen. Thanduxolo Mandela. Four of Mandela’s grandchildren, Mbuso Mandela, Andile Mandela, Zozuko Dlamini and Phumla Mandela, were to speak next followed by the U.N. secretary-general and the leaders of the African Union, Brazil, China, Namibia, India and Cuba.