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Last updated 07:33 11/12/2013

World leaders gather for Mandela's memorial

Nelson Mandela memorial
CELEBRATING A LIFE: A child draped in a South African flag at Soccer City stadium for Nelson Mandela's memorial.

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The world's most powerful gathered for four hours at Johannesburg's rain-soaked Soccer City to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela.

It was one of the largest gatherings of world leaders in history with almost 100 presidents, prime ministers, kings, sheikhs and movie stars all rubbing shoulders in a VIP suite.

Prime Minister John Key sat next to his British counterpart David Cameron, and exchanged pleasantries with former US Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Showbiz glamour came from U2 singer Bono and actress Charlize Theron. Also at the "calabash" - but sheltered from the downpour - were former South African presidents Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk, former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan and Cuba's Raul Castro.

Other world leaders, as well as Mandela's family, his widow Graca Machel and former wife Winnie Mandela, were seated on a stage surrounded by bulletproof glass. In a ceremony overdone with tedious speeches and lengthy sermons, US President Barack Obama stole the show.

To loud cheers, he told the crowd that Mandela - his personal hero - changed hearts and laws.

"Mandela taught us the power of action and the power of ideals, the importance of reasons and arguments," Obama said.

"He understood the ideals could not be contained within prison walls."

Key said the American leader was the "stand-out", and told him so when they had a little catch-up.

"You've just got to give the guy 10 out of 10 for being a brilliant orator," Key said.

"He really, I think, knocked it out of the park ... he had some very strong messages.

" I kind of think in a way he made the day."

It was a "quite remarkable day", Key said.

"It was a combination of extremely vibrant . . . at times very moving, but actually a celebration of the life of someone that was a remarkable person that people from all around the world could come and see what a great man he was."

The long speeches were broken up by "some great music".

"I got the feeling that people knew that he had come to the end of his time - at 95 years of age he had become quite frail, and now was the time to celebrate the great life of Nelson Mandela rather than mourn the fact that he had passed."

Leaders from Japan and China, US and Cuba and Venezuela, and Britain and Zimbabwe were expected to put aside rivalries to honour the man known as the Unifier. There were reports Obama shook hands with Castro, who also gave a rousing speech.

Key and Labour leader David Cunliffe also presented a united front. It was initially feared only two people from the New Zealand delegation would be permitted into the VIP enclosure, and Key chose his political opponent.

"I think we would have made the right call in choosing David Cunliffe ... this is New Zealand actually paying its respects to Nelson Mandela," Key said.

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"The most official and formal way of doing that is really by the leader of the Opposition and the prime minister doing that."

In the end, former prime minister Jim Bolger, former Commonwealth secretary-general Sir Don McKinnon and Maori Affairs Minister Dr Pita Sharples were all allowed in.

But the group almost didn't make it, their motorcade stuck for hours in heavy traffic.

"There was just traffic and the weather and the combination of leaders from all around the world didn't make things easy but in the end we got here ... it all sorted of worked," Key said.

He dismissed criticism of the chaotic arrangements and lax security.

"There were always going to be challenges for them with so many different people and so many delegations." Key said.

"It's kind of easy to be critical but they are in a different stage of development ... they did the best that they could. It was good to be part of it."

Cunliffe said he was blown away by the "enthusiasm of regular South Africans".

"They were jubilant at the start, gave a warm welcome to everybody and went crazy during Obama's speech," he said.

Cunliffe noted the jeers for President Jacob Zuma.

"They are clearly no fans of the current president, Mr Zuma," he said.

"And I get the distinct impression that the Madiba legacy is yet unfinished. While there is legal equality there is not economic opportunity. This is still a society of the haves and have-nots."

- Fairfax Media

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