Crowds celebrate Mandela's life

ANDREA VANCE IN JOHANNESBURG
Last updated 07:33 11/12/2013

World leaders gather for Mandela's memorial

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

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In Africa, when someone special dies, they say it pours.

And the rain has kept falling in Johannesburg since Nelson Mandela died, aged 95, last week.

Tens of thousands of people ignored the downpours to honour their Tata in a colourful memorial service.

Many arrived at the FNB stadium in the drizzly dawn draped in green and yellow flags. As the weather worsened they wrapped themselves in plastic bin liners and carried on singing and dancing. Empty seats in the 95,000 reflected the damp weather, transport problems and the fact the Government had not declared a public holiday, meaning many had to work.

There were few tears - the crowds had come to celebrate Madiba's life, freedom and the changes he brought to South Africa.

In a rousing address, US President Barack Obama spoke for many when he said: "We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela. While I will always fall short of Madiba, he makes me want to be a better man." Mandela was a "giant of history."

The rain-soaked ceremony got under way more than an hour late, but the party had already started. From 6am the stands filled up with people and noise. Gospel singers competed with political anthems, all met with a cacophony of whistles, stamping feet, and South Africa's signature plastic horn, the vuvuzela. The lengthy opening prayers and speeches could barely be heard over the racket: tributes were read by Mandela's grandchildren, Mbuso, Andile, Zozuko and Phulma

Only Obama's voice defied the struggling sound system.

He was followed by leaders from Brazil, China, Namibia, India and Cuba. A keynote address from President Jacob Zuma was accompanied by jeers, a mark of his deep unpopularity. The stadium began to empty after Obama finished talking.

This was an occasion for Mandela's people, rather than the dignitaries on the stage.

Wrapped in black plastic, Eunice Bunlike, from Soweto, said she didn't care about getting wet.  "I give thanks for the rain."  She said the anniversary of Mandela's birth, or his death, should become a national holiday.

Trophy Keante came from Botswana for the memorial. "It's history for us," she said. "There are no different colours [today], black or white, we are a family."

She met Mandela after his release from prison. "He changed everything and after his death people have learned a lot, about peace and forgiveness," she said. South Africa will go to the polls next year. "I think the next President will be more like Madiba ...do the same things that Mandela did."

J. Nico Scholten made the long trip from Holland to attend. "I couldn't miss it. I put aside my whole agenda."

As Founding President of the European Parliamentarians with Africa he met Mandela 10 times. Yesterday he carried with him a laminated black and white photo taken the first time they met, 20 years ago, in Brussels.

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"He was a saint. He was able to transfer his ideals to you. For me he was someone very unique, he fought for fundamental rights and dignity and he was the symbol of all that."

Elizabeth Alexander, who lives in Sydney, was in Johannesburg to celebrate her sister's 60th birthday. "It's amazing to be here. We couldn't wait to come, we walked in the rain...it was the one opportunity for me. It was meant for me to be here. I don't know what I would have done if I was in Australia and this happened."

Ray Vantrhaar travelled from his home in Auckland for the funeral of his father Desmond. "We had to be here for all the South Africans back in Auckland. Viva Mandela. He meant freedom for us, we wouldn't have been here without Madiba."

- Fairfax Media

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