JOHANNESBURG (AP) — World leaders, including President Barack Obama, and joyous, singing South Africans on Tuesday honored Nelson Mandela at a Soweto soccer stadium that was partially full, amid cold, driving rain.
The crowds twice booed South African President Jacob Zuma, who gave the keynote address at the service, which started an hour late. Zuma, 71, has a series of scandals weighing on his popularity before elections next year.
Crowds converged on 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.
Steady rain kept many people away. Shortly before the start of the ceremony, the 95,000-capacity stadium was about 50 percent full. The ceremony began at noon local time with the singing of the national anthem.
The mood, though, was celebratory. A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance.
Obama and wife Michelle landed in South Africa early Tuesday. He eulogized the former South African president at the memorial service.
He said Mandela earned his place in history through struggle, shrewdness, persistence and faith. He compared Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
Obama urged the world to act on Mandela's legacy by fighting inequality, poverty and racism. Obama called Mandela the last great liberator of the 20th century.
"For nothing he achieved was inevitable," Obama said. "In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, persistence and faith. He tells us what's possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well."
Obama traced the influence that Mandela's story has had on his own life, disclosing that he asks himself how well he's applied Mandela's lessons to himself as a man and as president.
He said in the U.S., South Africa and around the world, people must not allow progress that's been made to cloud the fact that more work must be done.
"We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace. There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba's legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality," Obama said, referring to Mandela by his traditional clan name.
"We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," Obama said. "But let me say to the people of Africa, and young people around the world: You can make his life's work your own."
As if to underscore the spirit of reconciliation that Mandela's life embodied, Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro as he made his way down a line of world leaders gathered to honor the anti-apartheid leader. It was a rare moment of accord for the leaders of the two Cold War enemies.
Joining Obama on the 16-hour trip from Washington for the ceremony were former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter also attended the memorial service.
Besides Obama, eulogies were delivered by U.N. chief Ban, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Other speakers included the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India, as well as tributes from Mandela's grandchildren.
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were at the stadium. So were actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.
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 political 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.
Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived amid an enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.
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. The rain, seen as a blessing among South Africa's majority black population, enthused the crowd.
“In our culture the rain is a blessing,” said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. “Only great, great people are memorialized with it. Rain is life. This is perfect weather for us on this occasion.”
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.
The soccer venue was also the spot where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 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 kilometers (miles) around the stadium. However, the first crowds entered the stadium without being searched.
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