World leaders extol Mandela

World leaders extol Mandela

World leaders from US President Barack Obama to Cuban President Raul Castro joined thousands of South Africans on Tuesday to honour Nelson Mandela in a memorial that celebrated his gift for uniting enemies across political and racial divides.

The fact that the 90-odd visiting leaders included some from nations locked in antagonism added resonance to the event held at the site of Mandela's last public appearance, at the 2010 Football World Cup final.

Obama and Castro, whose nations have been foes for more than half a century, were among the designated speakers at the stadium where 23 years ago Mandela, newly freed from apartheid jail, was hailed by supporters as the hope of a new South Africa. Coinciding with UN Human Rights Day, the memorial was the centrepiece of a week of mourning for the globally revered statesman, who died on Thursday aged 95.

The crowd twice booed South African President Jacob Zuma, who delivered the keynote address. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, is the frontrunner ahead of elections next year.

President Pranab Mukherjee, who headed a high-level Indian delegation, including Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, in his eulogy, called Mandela an icon of irreversible social and economic change who never diminished his commitment to his kind of “satyagraha” against injustice and inequality. Mukherjee, who received a thunderous welcome when he entered the stadium, highlighted the strong political links between South Africa and India especially through Mahatma Gandhi, who started his career here before leading India to freedom.

Obama, while paying tributes to Mandela’s fight against apartheid, said, "We know that like South Africa, the US had to overcome centuries of racial subjugation.”

Besides Obama, eulogies were delivered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao and Castro.

The UN secretary-general, who was the first foreign dignitary to pay homage, said, “He was one of our greatest teacher who taught by example.”

The service payed tribute to a life of imprisonment and sometimes violent political struggle that ended in forgiveness and triumph, confirming Mandela as one of the towering figures of the 20th century.

After Tuesday's event, Mandela's body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was sworn in as president in 1994. He will be buried on December 15 in Qunu, his ancestral home.

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