World leaders join South Africans to remember Nelson Mandela | Africa | DW | 10.12.2013
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World leaders join South Africans to remember Nelson Mandela

Hundreds of thousands gathered for the state memorial ceremony in Johannesburg to remember Nelson Mandela. A record number of 91 heads of state flew in for the occasion.

Rain poured down from the grey skies over Johannesburg. That did not deter Janet Voelkel. For two hours the 51-year-old had been waiting on one of the red plastic chairs at the city's Ellis Park Stadium.

She pulled a blanket in the colors of the South African flag tightly around her to ward off the cold.

"There was no doubt that I was going to come. I want to commemorate one of the greatest men in the world," said the white South African. When a friend rang her last Friday (06.12.2013) to tell her Mandela had died, she could not speak, but only cry.

Applause for Winnie Mandela

Like many others, Voelkel was not able to attend the central memorial event in the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium in Soweto which has capacity for 95,000 people.Since early morning people had queued to get in.

91 heads of states had come to remember and pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, making it one of the largest such gatherings ever. The list of heads of state present ranged from US President Barack Obama to Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai.

Janet Voekel and a friend wrapped in a blanket, sitting in Ellis Park Stadium

Janet Voekel (right), and a friend endured the rain to watch the memorial ceremony

Also present were some leaders who are not so welcome in the western world, such as Cuba's President Raul Castro and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe who was received with loud cheers.

There was also great applause for Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Mandela who was part of the assembled Mandela family, whereas his second wife Graca Machel was given a much more subdued reception.

Rainbow Nation for a day

The speakers in the FNB Stadium were full of praise for Nelson Mandela. In his address, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke of “sorrow for a mighty loss and celebration of a mighty life.” Again and again he invoked the Rainbow Nation which Mandela had created.

A mixture of sorrow and gratitude was also felt by viewers in Ellis Park, who were following the ceremony at the FNB stadium on three large screens. "I had expected his death and tried to prepare myself for it," said Janet Voelkel.

Salomon Motokoe was sitting a few seats away. The 48-year-old black civil servant expressed similar feelings: "I was shocked when I heard he had died," he said, becoming solemn for a moment. But when he spoke of Mandela's achievements, a broad smile returned to his face. He had Mandela to thank for a free South Africa, Motokoe said. "It means everything to me to be able to go wherever I want to, to be able to live wherever I want to, to have been able to get an education," he added, while repeatedly pointing to the Mandela portrait on his white T-shirt. "Tata [father], we love you," was written on the back.

German president Joachim Gauck with his wife at the Mandela memorial ceremonyr

Federal President Joachim Gauck (top right) represented Germany at the memorial ceremony

Alicia, 27, was also wearing a Mandela T-shirt. She came to Ellis Park with her friend, who is of Indian descent. "As terrible as his death is, I find it wonderful that white, colored and black South Africans are coming together," she said, adding the hope that: "It is a trend that will continue."

Words of warning

US President Barack Obama began his address by praising Nelson Mandela as a "giant of history" and looking back, full of admiration, on the life of the freedom fighter. But then Obama moved to the present. "There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba's struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people," Obama said, causing some in the audience to ask themselves whether he was referring to Robert Mugabe. "Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done," Obama went on to say. On this day there are many South Africans who would subscribe to that.

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