SOWETO, South Africa – Nelson Mandela was lauded as a “giant of history” and “one of the greatest leaders of our time” as tens of thousands cheered and almost 100 world leaders paid tribute to the anti-apartheid icon at a memorial service Tuesday.
President Barack Obama, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and some of his grandchildren addressed a service honoring the freedom fighter, prisoner, president and Nobel laureate who led South Africa out of apartheid.
“His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy,” Obama told the crowd at the 95,000-capacity stadium in Soweto. “The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us.”
Ban described Mandela as “one of the greatest leaders of our time.”
He added: "South Africa has lost a hero, we have lost a father, the world has lost a beloved friend and mentor. Nelson Mandela showed us the way with a heart larger than this stadium."
Leading an interfaith prayer service held under driving rain, South Africa's Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein recalled Mandela's "mighty power of forgiveness" and his ability to "to forgive and embrace his brothers and sisters who inflicted so much pain on him and millions of others."
Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
Winnie Mandela (left) and Graca Machel embrace as they arrive for Tuesday's memorial service.
The memorial also featured eulogies from Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, Cuba’s Raul Castro and China’s vice president Li Yuanchao. Leaders spanning the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, were also in attendance, as were former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Obama shook hands with Castro a short time before addressing the stadium.
Politician, businessman and fellow activist Cyril Ramaphosa praised Mandela as "the man who built our nation."
"His long walk is over, he can finally rest, he can now enjoy our beautiful country," Ramaphosa said, referencing the the title of Mandela's autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom." "His long walk is finally over, but ours is just beginning."
Many members of Mandela's extended family were also in attendance. His second wife Winnie Mandela, who stood by him during his 27 years in prison, greeted his third wife Graca Machel with a hug and a kiss. Celebrities such as U2 frontman Bono, actress Charlize Theron and model Naomi Campbell were among the mourners.
Most dignitaries sat in a covered area and behind bulletproof glass.
The atmosphere inside Africa's largest stadium was celebratory, with people dancing, blowing "vuvuzela" plastic horns and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle as they honored the man who steered their country from white-minority rule to multi-racial democracy.
"It is a moment of sadness celebrated by song and dance, which is what we South Africans do," Xolisa Madywabe, CEO of a South African investment firm, told The Associated Press.
Soweto, where the stadium which hosted the 2010 soccer World Cup final is located, is a township that became a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela embodied during his decades in prison.
Tuesday is also 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.
Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News
Glory Morake, left, paid tribute to Nelson Mandela with friends in Thokoza Park in Soweto on Tuesday.
At Thokoza Park in Soweto, Glory Morake and co-workers from Johannesburg's social development department huddled under a huge umbrella watching the event on a big screen, one of about 90 the government set up around the country.
"We are here, mourning for the chief, the father of the nation," she said. "He left us with a very good legacy."
Prince Adebayo, a 37-years-old businessman, said the bad weather did not stop him from attending a ceremony at Ellis Park Station in Johannesburg, where several hundred people watched the main memorial on two big screens.
"I am not worried about the future of South Africa because I know nothing will happen because he, Mandela, united us," he said.
NBC News' Erin McClam and Tracy Connor, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report. F. Brinley Bruton reported from London.
First published December 10 2013, 6:18 AM