Higgins, Gilmore in SA for Mandela service

Official Irish delegation to include one of the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strikers

A man places flowers in tribute to former South African president Nelson Mandela outside his house in Johannesburg  today. Photograph: Reuters

A man places flowers in tribute to former South African president Nelson Mandela outside his house in Johannesburg today. Photograph: Reuters

Mon, Dec 9, 2013, 17:48

Peter Murtagh and Bill Corcoran in Johannesburg

President Higgins and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore have arrived in Johannesburg to attend tomorrow’s State Memorial Service for the late Nelson Mandela.

President Higgins will lead the Irish delegation to the Service which takes place from 11 am onwards local time in the 96,000 seater FNB Stadium in Soweto.

It is expected that the numbers inside the stadium may be many more if the pitch to accommodate mourners is used.

President Higgins will be accompanied by his wife Sabina. The former president, Mary Robinson, a close colleague and friend of Mr Mandela will also attend the service.

The official Irish delegation will include one of three Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strikers from the 1980s who have travelled to South Africa for the occasion, and Ireland’s ambassador Brendan McMahon.

The United States will be represented by president Barack Obama along with former presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush, and Jimmy Carter. The president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and president of the commission, José Manuel Barroso, will represent the EU.

Most European heads of government and their counterparts from all six permanently inhabited continents are expected to attend. Prince Charles is expected to represent Queen Elizabeth. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided not to attend, however, cancelling at the last minute because, according to a senior Israeli government official, of cost.

It is understood that Mr Mandela’s body will not be present for the memorial service, which is likely to be a celebration of his life, solemnity mixed with exuberant singing and dancing.

Since his death last Thursday, South Africans have been unrestrained in displaying their love of Mr Mandela and appreciation of his achievements, which they articulate as his attainment of their freedom from racial segregation in an apartheid state.

Speaking tonight, Mr Gilmore said he expected the service to be memorable and lengthy.

“It will be a unique event where political leaders and former political leaders from all over the world will assemble to pay tribute to this wonderful man and what he stands for,” said Mr Gilmore.

“This is a funeral event, it is about saying goodbye to this extraordinary individual and paying respect to him. But it is also an opportunity for world leaders to reflect on what we need to do now to carry forward Mandela’s ideals and his ambitions. There are still 800 million people that are hungry in the world.”

Reflecting on Mr Mandela’s global appeal, Mr Gilmore said there was simply no one else like him in the world.

“He is probably the most iconic figure of our lifetime,” said the Tánaiste. “Here is an heroic figure about whom literally nobody has a bad word to say. He has commanded respect in every part of the world, across every country.

“I think that respect is for the suffering that he endured personally and the sacrifices that he made in the struggle against apartheid, the role that he played in negotiating the transition in South Africa from the apartheid regime to democracy. The fact also that he was of course the first democratically elected president of all of South Africa. And then when he retired, he continued to work for reconciliation, for resolution of conflicts and to work in the struggle against hunger and poverty.”