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.