Boos for Zuma, Cheers for Obama as the World Says Farewell to Mandela

The father of South African democracy is put to rest with rain, songs and toyi, toyi. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Soweto —  No sooner had the tens of thousands -- who for hours weathered steady rain and a chill wind by singing and dancing -- sat down than President Obama propelled them out of their seats again.

The 70,000 who attended the memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the FNB (First National Bank) Stadium gave the president a rousing ovation when he was first glimpsed on giant video screens. And they cheered again when he thanked the people of South Africa “for sharing Nelson Mandela with us.”

As Obama spoke, the rain -- which ANC Deputy President and master of ceremonies Cyril Ramaphosa reminded visitors was a blessing according to African tradition -- fell harder.

“In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness, and persistence and faith,” Obama said. “He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books, but in our own lives as well.”

He challenged the audience to not only mourn and celebrate Mandela’s heroic life but engage in a period of self-reflection and to “act on behalf of social justice.”

For many in the stadium, Obama’s speech was the highlight of the four-hour memorial service, which included eulogies by President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Vice-President Li Yuanchao of China, President Pranab Mukherjee of India, President Raul Castro of Cuba and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who said Mandela had “an infectious smile” that “lit up the world.” He delighted South Africans when he closed his speech in Xhosa, saying “lala ngoxolo,” or “Rest in peace.”

But it was Obama’s speech that had the crowd roaring with approval.

“Anyone who came here will tell you the highlight was Barack Obama,” said Tshego Neeuwfan, 28, an engineer from Johannesburg who arrived at 3:30 in the morning to be sure he’d get in. He especially liked that the American president, in front of more than 90 world leaders, spoke out against presidents who don’t allow dissent. “He used the platform to talk about human rights,” Tshego said.

The Obama speech immediately had South Africans drawing unfavorable comparisons to their own beleaguered president, Jacob Zuma, who was roundly booed when he entered the stadium and each time he appeared on the video screens. A report by the national public protector is expected to report soon on the $20 million plus renovation of Zuma's private home.

The boos at Zuma caused Ramaphosa to repeatedly call for “discipline” and led the ruling African National Congress to issue a statement to the local press contending that the jeers were planned and orchestrated by the South African president’s opponents.

There was, however, far more singing and dancing than booing. For many, the music began on buses and trains as mourners made their way to the stadium. On one packed train out of Park Station in Johannesburg, Mandela admirers sang the South African national anthem and songs popularized during the fight against apartheid and danced the traditional dance known as the toyi toyi, their stomping feet drowning out the roar of the train.

The celebration continued at the stadium, where, five hours before the service began, mourners filled the upper deck, sang and danced, the entire level moving in unison.

One refrain was repeated over and over throughout the day: “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Akekho Ofana Naye.” In his speech, Zuma provided a translation: “We say that he is one of a kind, that there is no one quite like him.”

And on that, at least, there was no argument.

Mandela2 A boy looks on in front of balloons bearing a picture of former South African President Nelson Mandela on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, where Mandela resided when he lived in the township, December 7, 2013. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Mandela3 People sing and dance in heavy rain while waiting for the start of the official memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank stadium, also known as Soccer City, in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Mandela4 A man reacts to the words of U.S. President Barack Obama during the national memorial service for late former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg's National Bank Stadium December 10, 2013. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Mandela5 U.S. President Barack Obama (C) and his wife Michelle are seen on a big screen at the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium, also known as Soccer City, during the national memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. Yves Herman/Reuters

Mandela6 Qunu resident Nowilele Voboyi watches Archbishop Desmond Tutu give a final blessing during a televised memorial service for Nelson Mandela at the FNB stadium in Soweto on December 10, 2013. CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Mandela7 A placard showing a picture of the late South African president Nelson Mandela is seen on the pavement outside the First National Bank (FNB) Stadium, also known as Soccer City, ahead of Mandela's national memorial service on Tuesday in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Mandela8 U.S. President Barack Obama pays his respect to Mandela's widow Graca Machel after his speech at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Mandela9 People attending Nelson Mandela's public Memorial Service at the FNB stadium on December 10, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Herman Verwey/Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Mandela10 A street vendor offers buttons with pictures of Nelson Mandela outside the house where Mandela resided in when he lived in the township of Soweto December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach