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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 21 October, 2014

South Africans honour “giant of history”, Madiba

The life of the Father of the Nation was remembered by a crowd including almost 100 dignitaries in Johannesburg today.

Updated at 11.10pm

ONLY A LEADER like Nelson Mandela could compel almost one hundred dignitaries of differing beliefs and opposing viewpoints to sit together in the name of peace.

“He was not,” said US President Barack Obama, as he spoke of the freedom fighter at today’s memorial in FNB Stadium, “a bust made of marble. He was a man made of flesh and blood”.

Mandela, who died at the age of 95 last Thursday night, resisted his image being painted as a ‘lifeless portrait”, said Obama.

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AP Photo/Ben Curtis

Mandela was mortal; he was not a perfect man. But he was close to perfect in the eyes of millions.

The ending of apartheid, after a long and violent struggle, did not mean that South Africa became perfect, but it meant that a heavy, unequivocal blow was dealt against the terrible force of racism.

Its end meant freedom. It meant hope.

Just as Madiba was not perfect, so too was his memorial imperfect, if people were expecting a toned-down event. It was riotous, irreverent at times, pulsing with energy. There were appeals for the crowd to tone down their singing, rambunctious bands were asked to put down their instruments, and the country’s own president Jacob Zuma had his speech initially marred by boos.

Arrivals

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The contrasts were no more evident than in the footage of the ceremony. Into the grey belly of the FNB Stadium the dignitaries from throughout Africa and beyond arrived this morning, along with a scattering of celebrities – Bono, Charlize Theron – all sombre in their dark clothing.

Above them in the almost full 95,000-seater stadium, the crowds smiled, sang, danced, and cried, clutching images of their hero. Colourfully celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela – their Madiba, their Tata – in full spirit.

Some would describe it as a show of pathetic fallacy that the rain fell slowly on the gathered crowds.

But others saw a more spiritual reason for the opened heavens.

“When it rains when you are buried, it means that your gods are welcoming you and the gates of heaven are most probably open as well,” Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC deputy president, told the crowd as he opened the ceremony.

Of course, the rain may as well not have been there. Under umbrellas, and ANC flags fashioned into headscarves, people cheered.

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Pic: Gavin Barker /Sports Inc/Press Association Images

The memorial

As he welcomed those present, Ramaphosa spoke of the hope for a ‘dignified and fitting’ service for Madiba, a man who “worked to free us all”, whose life “transcended the faultlines of our own humanity”.

Mandela took under his care the millions of South Africans who were oppressed under apartheid, moving from peaceful means to a more violent movement as the grip of oppression grew tighter. Eventually, he was jailed for sabotage.

In court, on the cusp of being jailed, his message was clear and uncompromising.

Said Ramphosa:

He worked to free us all and in a way, black and white, to embark on a journey to reconcile with each other to forgive our past transgressions to bury hatred, embrace human rights, non-racialism, non-sexism, and begin the task and arduous odyssey to become a nation of diverse cultures, diverse religions and different races.

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Pic: AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen

Family and friends paid their tributes first, including Robben Island cellmate and Rivonia Trialist Andrew Mlangeni, who said there was “no doubt” that Mandela was smiling while his countrymen met in his memory.

Family members spoke of sharing Mandela with South Africa and the rest of the world, calling for people to help keep Madiba’s dream alive

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon acknowledged the “mighty loss and celebration of a mighty life”. Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma of the AU Commission Chair said that now is the time to build on what Mandela achieved.

The similarities between Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi were explored by India’s President Pranab Mukherjee, who said his country stands with South Africa.

A handshake between Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Obama was a small but significant example of how Mandela brought about peaceful moments after his death.

President Jacob Zuma described Mandela as a “courageous leader”, and a “fearless freedom fighter”. “There is no one like Madiba,” he told the crowd.

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, left, Nelson Mandela’s former wife. Pic: AP Photo/Matt Dunham

Barack Obama, who received a rapturous welcome, spoke of Mandela’s influence on his own life. “He makes me want to be a better person,” he said.

For him, Mandela was imperfect, shrewd, proud, rebellious. He held an anger inside that was “borne of a thousand slights” an anger felt by people whose race marked them out as other. His death is a time for self-reflection, said Obama: “We must ask how well have I applied his lessons in my own life”.

The absence of the Dalai Lama, who had previously met Mandela but was unable to obtain a visa, was notable.

Mandela’s long walk to freedom led him gently to this stadium, to an overwhelming event that belied his humble beliefs.

As a memorial, it was somehow fitting in its rambunctious imperfectness. As a symbol of the continued fight for equality, it was powerful.

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Watch the remainder of the ceremony live here.

First posted at 1.40pm.

Read: More than 80,000 to attend memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg>

PHOTO: Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban president Raul Castro>

LIVE: The Rainbow Nation says goodbye to its founding father>

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