World leaders join South Africans for Mandela memorial

Party atmosphere as thousands gather, writes Peter Murtagh, in Johannesburg


The giant FNB football stadium in Johannesburg has been buzzing since early today ahead of the State Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela.

There’s nothing sombre here right now. It’s party time and they’re going to celebrate their hero in their own boisterous, inimitable way.

Thousands of singing and dancing ANC supporters have taken over the top tier at one end of the 96,000-seat arena and belted out freedom struggle songs. Banners and flags abound, and many have given full expression to their individual dress sense.


Thousands of ordinary South Africans sang God Bless Africa — Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika — are joining leaders at the stadium in Soweto amid driving rain. ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa welcomed leaders from countries around the world. “We wish to applaud the people of South Africa for the dignified manner in which they have honoured and remembered the memory of Nelson Mandela since he passed away. We applaud you and thank you for it,” he said at the start of the service.

Those attending include President Michael D Higgins, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, British prime minister David Cameron and his three surviving predecessors, Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as well as US President Barack Obama. Also seen arriving at the service were supermodel Naomi Campbell, rock star Bono, former South African president FW De Klerk, ex-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former French president Nicholas Sarkozy. Mr Mandela, who died last Thursday aged 95, made his last public appearance at the stadium at the closing ceremony of the 2010 football World Cup.

One much photographed man is sporting a home-made stovepipe top hat, topped off with a football.

Johannesburg woke to a damp, dank, overcast and raining morning. “It’s a good sign,” declared Mary, a large lady in her 50s, a big smiling happy woman – the sort of women who here would be called “Momma”, with great affection and no hint of disrespect. Mary, a widow with three grown up children, had got out of bed at 5am to make the 20km trek from her home to the stadium and nothing, absolutely nothing on this earth, would stop here coming.

“I had to come,” she told me as we sat together on the bus. “Nothing was going to stop me saying goodbye to Madiba.”

As a student in the 1970s, Mary’s first brush with the reality of apartheid came when she visited the Union Building in Pretoria, home to South Africa’s parliament. Stepping inside, she was told to get out, the first brush with apartheid she can remember.

“I knew them that something was wrong, really wrong here.”

She got involved in the struggle and later became a teacher and is now a career guidance advisor.

Mary and the other passengers assured the rest of us that the rain was indeed a good sign. A persistent drizzle the like of which graces many an Irish day is seen here as a good omen on the day of a funeral – even if this farewell to Mandela is not quite a funeral.

Additional reporting Agencies

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