JOHANNESBURG: More than 70 world leaders from US President Barack Obama to Iran’s Hassan Rouhani are flying to South Africa for events commemorating Nelson Mandela this week, an unprecedented gathering that will hail one of humanity’s great peacemakers.
Cuban leader Raul Castro, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Britain’s David Cameron will also join what is set to be one of the biggest meetings of global dignitaries in recent history on Tuesday at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium, the foreign ministry said on Monday.
The 95,000-seat stadium in Soweto, the township that was at the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, will host the main memorial ceremony for Mandela, who died on Thursday aged 95.
It was the site of Mandela’s last public appearance, when he waved to fans from the back of a golf cart at the final of the 2010 soccer World Cup.
“The whole world is coming to South Africa,” foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said, playing down concerns about organising logistics and security for such a large event with only five days notice following Mandela’s death.
Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, passed away peacefully in the company of his family on Thursday after a long battle with a lung infection, plunging his 52 million compatriots and millions more around the world into grief.
“We’re obviously not starting from scratch in terms of organisation,” Monyela said. “We’ve got a system that kicks into play whenever you’ve got events of this magnitude.”
Since his death, South Africa has been gripped by an outpouring of emotion unrivalled since Mandela’s release from 27 years in apartheid prisons in 1990, and his victory in the first all-race elections four years later.
On Sunday, worshippers filled churches, mosques, synagogues and community halls, offering praise and prayers for a man celebrated as “Father of the Nation” and a global beacon of integrity, rectitude and reconciliation.
Tributes have flowed in from around the world.
“The fact that international leaders are making their way to South Africa at such short notice reflects the special place President Mandela holds in the hearts of people around the globe,” Presidency Minister Collins Chabane said.
After Tuesday’s event, Mandela’s remains will lie in state for three days the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was sworn in as President in 1994. He will then be buried on December 15 in Qunu, his ancestral home in the Eastern Cape province.
But only “very few” world leaders will attend the Qunu funeral, Monyela said, adding the idea was to keep this event more a family affair. – Reuters