Nightly News   |  December 10, 2013

Touching moments from Mandela’s memorial service

The world came to South Africa to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela on Tuesday: everyone from world leaders, to celebrities to local citizens. NBC’s Lester Holt reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> good evening, after what has been a memorial like no other for a man like no other, a heavy dose of celebration, a full-on boisterous back drop against which south africa hosted the world. big name leaders from all over, led by four u.s. presidents , four british prime ministers , varied kings and celebrities, a dictator or two and some surprises, starting with heavy rain which kept the crowd size down here, many instead had to watch on television inside. while the mix of people who came to remember nelson mandela was extraordinary, the kind of crowd he once dreamed of, the mix of politicians proved to be fraught. and one of the moments came today when president obama found himself shaking hands with raoul castro, brother of fidel and the leader of cuba. it was that kind of day, and from here where mandela 's body will lie shortly in state, we go to soweto with lester holt .

>> reporter: brian, good evening, it was a colorful and powerful tribute and in life, nelson mandela brought this country together in life, in dead he brought together an interesting collection of global allies and adversaries. it was president obama who drew the most attention.

>> people of south africa , people of every race and every walk of life , the world thanks you for sharing nelson mandela with us.

>> reporter: and the world came. some by motorcade with entourages, some by foot, altogether to celebrate the broad canvas that was nelson mandela , from activist to president.

>> such pent-up emotion, so many coming here to south africa to pay respects to madiba .

>> i have my program, i'm keeping this for my granddaughter, the day nelson mandela was selected.

>> reporter: this was mandela , through black and white .

>> i wouldn't even have two degrees if it was not for dr. mandela .

>> reporter: the crowd sometimes broke into song. there were touching moments. mandela 's second wife, winnie, embracing his widow, michelle, nobody but mandela could have survived this kind of gathering. mandela 's partner in peace, former south african president f.w.dekrerk, and president obama president obama offering a hand shake to the cuban dictator.

>> there are too many leaders who claimed solidarity with madiba , but who don't tolerate the dissent from their own people. it took a man like madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer, as well. he changed laws, but he also changed hearts.

>> reporter: with three former presidents, jimmy carter , along with george bush and bill clinton and their wives looking on, the president recalled learning of mandela when he was a college student . the third seated on the right.

>> it woke me up from my responsibilities, it stirred something in me, my responsibilities to others and myself and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.

>> reporter: as the period of mourning continues here, tomorrow his body will lie in state for three days. the family and vips, brian, will begin to view the body first thing tomorrow.

>> lester holt , inside the stadium for all of them. as we said it was that kind of day. and the other moment from today's memorial that is getting attention tonight. a selfy featuring president obama , british prime minister david cameron , and danish prime minister . it instantly went viral, i guess it was designed to, seen around the world. our special correspondent is here with us tonight. a veteran american journalist who has lived here for close to two decades. you and i had the distinguished task of covering this live. you kept saying it was a perfect african celebration, folks that tuned in saw full-on celebration going on behind the speakers, what was it do you think we witnessed here today?

>> well, that is in the culture of south africa , they mourn by celebrating, because they believe that the body has departed, but it has become ancestor, and so they go to the grave to talk to them, many of them. in tune to that and hope to get wisdom. so it is a celebration of a life and a transition, and that is in the nature of how south africa 's approach -- the transition.

>> and after all the talk and worry it should be said this country pulled this off today and that is important. it has been great having you, charlene.