Barack Obama farewells Nelson Mandela at Johannesburg memorial

Johannesburg: With proud smiles, tears and the solemn words of the world’s leaders, South Africa has said farewell to its father and greatest son.

White and black, young and old, embraced in joy and sorrow. Impromptu music, drums, cheers and whistles filled the arena.

The event was a competition between the solemn words of dignitaries and the boisterous singing of the crowd. Within the arena at least, the crowd was winning.

Fists were raised in the symbol so familiar to Nelson Mandela, but today they were raised in brotherhood and respect, not defiance.

US President Barack Obama told the crowd ‘‘The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us."

He called him "a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice and in the process moved billions around the world".

Speaking to rapturous applause, Mr Obama said Mr Mandela had accepted the consequences of his actions knowing that standing up to powerful interest carried a price.

"Mandela learnt the language and customs of his oppressors to convey to them that their own freedom would one day depend on his."

A program director had earlier opened proceedings by telling the crowd that the rain was, in African funeral tradition, seen as a blessing that the dead were being welcomed in heaven.

Mr Mandela "encapsulated the best of humanity", he said.

"We are here to tell Mandela that his long walk is over and he can finally rest and enjoy the view."

The stadium was slow to fill, partly due to dire warnings about an expected crush of people, partly because it was a week day, and partly due to the cold and constant drizzle.

But in the end more than 50,000 streamed through the gates.

From the early hours the people of South Africa had arrived in the mood for a party, and they sang constantly for hours before the official proceedings got under way.

"UMandela lo," they chanted in spine-tingling unison, clapping and swaying. "This is Mandela!"

"Abamaziyo, abakaze bambone!" ("The famous, none have seen his like before.")

They sang Shosholoza, the traditional folk song of South Africa's miners, now the country's unofficial anthem, sung by Mr Mandela as he worked on the lime quarries of his Robben Island prison.

He called it "a song that compares the apartheid struggle to the motion of an oncoming train".

"Shosholoza," it goes. In translation: "Go forward, go from these mountains on this train from South Africa."

In call and response, the crowd were led in song. "Nelson Mandela ... Tata Madiba," they sang, waving their arms.

His old friend and fellow Robben Island inmate Andrew Nlangeni said Mr Mandela had touched his heart, his soul and his life - and  those of millions of South Africans.

"He was an incomparable force of good and kindness," he said. "He inspired us all by entering the den of the enemy and ultimately ... defeating oppression and subjugation, not by force, but with understanding and love."

He reminded the crowd of the sacrifice of other ANC figures who had fought apartheid.

And he recalled occupying a cell on Robben Island next to Mr Mandela, saying he learnt from Mr Mandela's guidance and leadership.

"I cannot thank you enough," he said. "God bless Mandela, May his soul rest in peace."

General Thanduxolo Mandela spoke first on behalf of the family.

He said more than any other feeling, today his family held thankfulness in their hearts. Their sorrow was daily lessened by the national and international outpouring of grief, he said.

"He saw his greatness ... not as a means to dominate but as a means to  make all men and women equal so their lives could be lived to their fullest potential."

He called on South Africans to keep Mr Mandela's spirit alive by keeping to the principles of peace, justice and unity that he stood for.

"As a family we have no option but to be bound by the principles of Nelson Mandela because he would accept no less," he said.

Mr Mandela's flame was now passed on to all nations and people, on a journey to a world where harmony prevails, he said.

Mr Mandela's grandchildren gave poetic and emotional tributes.

"Sadness and celebrations co-mingle," said one.

"You are a legend in our memories, you tower over the world like a comet leaving streaks of light for us to follow."

Another grandchild said his grandfather's passing was like the felling if a giant tree, scattering bright leaves.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he joined in the celebration of a mighty life.

"Nelson Mandela was more than one of the greatest leaders of our time; he was one of the greatest teachers," he said. "He taught by example."

Mr Ban said the democratisation of South Africa had been a triumph of ideals over prejudice.

"His long walk continues ... Let us now be guided and inspired by the spirit he has awoken in us."

The organisers pleaded for the crowd to be dignified, as they occasionally booed figures or sentiments they did not like, including South African President Jacob Zuma.

The memorial attracted more than 70 leaders and heads of state - including Mr Obama, Cuban President Raul Castro, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and Australian Prime MinisterTony Abbott - making it the biggest and most diverse gathering of global dignitaries in recent memory.

Thousands of police were mobilised to keep order.

All four living British PMs are attending, and four US presidents.

Mr Obama attended with his wife, Michelle.

Speaking before the service Mr Abbott said  it was a sad day for South Africa and the world.

"We mourn the passing of a great leader but we celebrate a great life. This is the paradox of a day like today - we're sad because he's gone but we're thrilled because he's lived."

Celebrities included Bono, Oprah Winfrey, Naomi Campbell, the Spice Girls and Richard Branson.

Mr Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, was there, her first public appearance since her husband's death. She was greeted with wild cheers from the crowd - rivalling the welcome for former president Thabo Mbeki, and Mr Mandela's former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela with her daughter Zindzi.

Mrs Madikizela-Mandela and Mrs Machel shared a long, emotional embrace before the ceremony got under way.

Prince Charles did not attend, instead representing the Queen at the burial in Qunu on Sunday.

After the memorial but before the burial, Mr Mandela’s body will lie in state at Pretoria’s government buildings, where first VIPs and then members of the public will be able to file past the body - although they will be told not to take pictures.

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