Nelson Mandela was, in the words of one old friend, "a great giant who strode the universe like a colossus," and his sendoff in South Africa will be on a scale not seen in modern memory.
Dozens of heads of state and celebrities such as Bono and Oprah are expected to join 95,000 mourners at FNB Stadium in Soweto for Tuesday's memorial service to pay tribute to the freedom fighter, prisoner, president and Nobel laureate who led his nation out of apartheid and died last week at the age of 95.
Leaders spanning the globe, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, will be in attendance. President Barack Obama will give a 15-minute tribute, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will also speak on a stage surrounded by bulletproof glass. Three former U.S. presidents will be there: George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
Carter is a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders who offer guidance on global issues that was started by Mandela in 2007. On the eve of the memorial service, he told NBC News that Mandela joins Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa as the moral leaders of our age.
"They weathered very difficult times, they came through with flying colors, they inspired other people," Carter said. "They emulate their moral values as best they could, and I think that Nelson would go down in history as one of the leading people of the century."
The keynote is to be delivered by South African President Jacob Zuma, but the crowds will also hear more personal recollections — from four of Mandela's grandchildren and from Andrew Mlangeni, 88, who was locked up with him on Robben Island.
Mlangeni and Mandela were two of the African National Congress activists convicted and sentenced to life at the so-called Rivonia treason trial in 1964, and they were freed a year apart.
"Long may his memory and legacy remain as an embodiment of liberty and justice," the 88-year-old said at a press conference Monday, according to Agence France Press. "For he epitomized the core essence of the struggle through his words and deeds."
The stadium service is the start of an extended farewell that continues with Mandela's body lying in state in Pretoria from Wednesday to Friday and ends with burial in his hometown of Qunu on Sunday.
The logistics and security concerns are gargantuan, and South African police are deploying thousands of officers to direct traffic, protect the masses and help the bodyguards that the world’s dignitaries bring with them.
High government officials, mostly presidents and prime ministers, from at least 88 countries and world bodies will be there, according to an official list from the South African government. Four American presidents have not been overseas together since 1999.
“We will be on hand to make sure people are able to grieve in a safe environment,” Lt. Gen. Solomon Makgale, a spokesman for the police, told The Associated Press.
“Whether we have 10 heads of state coming or 70 or 100, we do have the capacity and plans in place to facilitate their movement."
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama depart Joint Base Andrews in Washington en route to Johannesburg on Monday Dec. 9, 2013. The Obamas will attend the memorial service for South Africa's Nelson Mandela on Tuesday.
The guests include the prime ministers of Britain and Canada, the presidents of Brazil and France, and Prince Charles. The king of Belgium is going, and so are the heirs to the thrones of Denmark, Norway and Spain. Along with the U.N.’s Ban is his predecessor, Kofi Annan.
The last gathering in world history that compares to the Mandela service was probably the funeral of Pope John Paul II, in 2005, which drew the heads of state of more than 70 countries.
Collins Chabane, a minister of the South African government, told reporters Monday that authorities had no guess how many ordinary people will try to attend the service, but they are prepared for hundreds of thousands.
Those who can't fit into FNB — where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup — will be sent to smaller arenas to watch on video screens.
Bono, who worked with Mandela on poverty and AIDS, said the week of mourning will be a time for sadness over his passing, celebration of his extraordinary life and reflection on the future of Africa.
"Where do we find leadership like this again?" the Irish rock star told NBC News. "Not just on the continent of Africa. Where do we find leadership like that in Europe, in America?
"This is a rare thing, this ability to compromise, this ability to not bear a grudge," he added. "You know, this is a man with all the reasons to hate his enemy, but he refused to hate ... not because he didn't feel rage, but I think he just felt love would do a better job.
"And I think that kind of vision is, is why we will be both sad and also why we will be so joyful as we meditate on this."
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First published December 9 2013, 9:06 PM