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Updated: Tue, 10 Dec 2013 05:00:17 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Nelson Mandela: Mourners in South Africa flock to memorial



A woman with tears in her eyes braves heavy rain as she waits for the start of the official memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. World leaders, from U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba's Raul Castro, will pay homage to Mandela at the memorial that will recall his gift for bringing enemies together across political and racial divides. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (© SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY)

A woman with tears in her eyes braves heavy rain as she waits for the start of the official memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. World leaders, from U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba's Raul Castro, will pay homage to Mandela at the memorial that will recall his gift for bringing enemies together across political and racial divides. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY) Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Almost 100,000 people and more than 100 world leaders were expected in a South African stadium on Tuesday to celebrate the life Nelson Mandela, united in tribute to a man who became a global symbol of reconciliation.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and four former Canadian prime ministers are among the crowd at FNB Stadium in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela embodied as a prisoner of white rule for 27 years and then during a peril-fraught transition to the all-race elections that made him president.

Much of the crowd was joyous and singing as they awaited the globally televised event.

"Even though this is a memorial, really this is the funeral for the people, it's far from glum most places I have been to," CBC reporter Kim Brunhuber said from the city of Pretoria. "The mood has been far from sombre. It's felt more like a street party in some places more so than a funeral."  

Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a marketing student who arrived hours before the gates opened, said he would not have the life he has today if not for Mandela.

"He was jailed so we could have our freedom."

Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said he grew up during white rule in a "privileged position" as a white South African and that Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.

"His reconciliation allowed whites to be released themselves," Lair said. "I honestly don't think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela."

Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived, reflecting the enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.

Canada's official delegation arrived Monday morning. Harper, his wife Laureen and four of the prime minister's predecessors — Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell and Joe Clark — will be attending Tuesday's memorial.

The other members of the Canadian delegation are:

-  Former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean.

-  Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo.

- Canada's high commissioner to South Africa, Gaston Barban, and his wife, Jane.

"We've been listening to the singing of tens of thousands who've gathered here," Atleo said from inside the stadium. "It's a feeling of both sorrow and I think deep pride and the celebration of the life of an incredible man." 

The prime minister's office says Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, as well as four provincial premiers and several MPs who travelled to South African won't be allowed into the Soweto stadium for the event. The decision was made last night by the South African protocol office, a Harper spokesman said.

U.S. President Barack Obama landed in South Africa hours before the event was due to start.

20th anniversary of Mandela's Nobel Prize

Besides Obama, eulogies were to be delivered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese vice-president Li Yuanchao and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Other speakers include the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India, as well as tributes from Mandela's grandchildren. South African President Jacob Zuma was to give the keynote address.

Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mandela and South Africa's last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country.

Mandela said in his acceptance speech at the time: "We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born."

The sounds of horns and cheering filled the stadium ahead of the ceremony, due to start at 11 a.m. local time. Rain sent those who arrived early into the stadium's covered upper deck, and many of the lower seats were empty.

People blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horn that was widely used during the World Cup soccer tournament in 2010, and sang songs from the era of the anti-apartheid struggle decades ago.

"It is a moment of sadness celebrated by song and dance, which is what we South Africans do," said Xolisa Madywabe, CEO of a South African investment firm.

Memorial held where Mandela last appeared publicly

The 95,000-capacity soccer venue was also the spot where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. After the memorial, his body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, once the seat of white power, before burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.

Police promised tight security, locking down roads kilometres around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.

John Allen, a 48-year-old pastor from the U.S. state of Arkansas, said he once met Mandela at a shopping centre in South Africa with his sons.

"He joked with my youngest and asked if he had voted for Bill Clinton," Allen said. "He just zeroed in on my eight-year-old for the three to five minutes we talked."

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