JOHANNESBURG (CBSNewYork/AP) — Amid cheers and song for the prisoner who became peacemaker, President Barack Obama energized tens of thousands of spectators and nearly 100 visiting heads of state Tuesday with a plea for the world to emulate Nelson Mandela, “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”
In a speech that received thunderous applause at FNB stadium and a standing ovation, Obama called on people to apply the lessons of Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison under a racist regime, embraced his enemies when he finally walked to freedom and ushered in a new era of forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.
“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace,” said Obama, adding that when he was a student, Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”
Addressing the memorial service for Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, Obama pointed out that “around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.”
“A giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice and, in the process, moved billions around the world,” said Obama. “And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man.”
On the way to the podium, Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, underscoring a recent warming of relations between Cuba and the U.S.
The weather and public transportation problems kept many people away. The 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.
Some of the dozens of trains reserved to ferry people to the stadium were delayed due to a power failure. A Metrorail services spokeswoman, Lilian Mofokeng, said more than 30,000 mourners were successfully transported by train.
Mandela’s message of peace and unity resonated deeply with those in the crowd.
“He fought for us and we are free now because of him,” said one man.
“This is a man that brought us from a time of real darkness and fear and a lot of hate into a time of hope,” another South African said.
The mood was celebratory. A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance, including former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who succeeded Mandela, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators who sang praise for Mandela, seen by many South Africans as the father of the nation.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were at the stadium, and gave each other a long hug before the ceremonies began. So were actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.
“You tower over the world like a comet leaving streaks of light for us to follow,” Mandela’s granddaughter Pumla Mandela said.
As CBS 2’s Dana Tyler reported, the feelings of kinship didn’t seem to be felt for South Africa’s current president Jacob Zuma, who was booed.
Many South Africans are angry with him over state corruption scandals.
But Zuma pressed on with his remarks about Mandela.
“In his honor, we commit ourselves to continue building a nation based on the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom,” said Zuma.
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. De Klerk, a political rival who became friends with Mandela, was also in the stadium.
Mandela said in his Nobel 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 memorial service was also broadcast around the world.
Locals gathered at Madiba, a restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to watch the memorial early Tuesday morning.
“It’s become celebratory grounds,” Sharif Byam told WCBS 880’s Paul Murnane. “People reminiscing over the fact that they’ve seen him, shook his hand when he was at Boys and Girls down that road, down Fulton and up to Harlem.”
“It felt important to mark this with others,” Clinton Hill resident Elliot Leffler, who came to watch the memorial, told CBS 2’s Weijia Jiang. “Nelson Mandela was a person who brought people together. Obama marked this as a time to think about what we do in the world for us to reflect on the values Mandela embodied.”
Mandela was greeted by tens of thousands of cheering people when he visited New York City in 1990, four months after the end of his 27-year imprisonment.
He made other visits, including after the Sept. 11 attacks and in 2005, when he was presented the key to the city by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Mandela’s body will lie in state for the next three days in Pretoria. That is where he was inaugurated in 1994 as South Africa’s first black and first democratically elected president .
On Saturday, Mandela’s flag-draped casket will be flown by military aircraft to his ancestral village of Qunu. His burial will be held in Qunu on Sunday.
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