World leaders join South Africans to memorialize Nelson Mandela

December 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Nelson Mandela Memorial
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GWEN IFILL: Millions of people around the world watched early today as South Africans, world leaders, celebrities and a vibrant community of mourners paid final respects to the country’s former president and anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela.

A cold rain didn’t dampen the spirits of tens of thousands who came from far and near to the four-hour service. Downpours may have kept others away, with just two-thirds of the stadium’s 95,000 seats filled. But the weather took nothing away from a celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy that was at turns jubilant, raucous and solemn.

The late leader’s nephew spoke for his family, praising the humility of the man widely known with affection by his clan name.

GEN. THANDUXOLO MANDELA, nephew of Nelson Mandela: In his lifetime, Madiba mingled with kings, queens and presidents, and prime ministers, captains of industries and ordinary workers. At the core of his being, he was a man of the people.

GWEN IFILL: And some of Mandela’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren offered their own remembrance in the form of a poem.

PHUMLA MANDELA, great-granddaughter of Nelson Mandela: The land heaves dreams of a future without you, Madiba. You are lodged in our memories. You tower over the world like a comet, leaving streaks of life for us to follow. We salute you.

GWEN IFILL: When President Obama rose to speak, he was greeted with waves of cheers and thunderous applause. He led the long list of foreign dignitaries bringing eulogies from around the world.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

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GWEN IFILL: The president hailed Mandela as the last great liberator of the 20th century and urged the world to follow his example.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality. There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

PRESIDENT OBAMA: And there are too many of us — too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism, when our voices must be heard.

GWEN IFILL: As he has before, Mr. Obama recalled it was Mandela’s work worlds away that helped fuel his own desire to enter public service.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggles taking place in this beautiful land, and it stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man.

GWEN IFILL: Under tight security, the president and nearly 100 other heads of state and government filed into the stadium.

They included three former U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff pointed to Mandela’s long battle against apartheid and the example he set for many in the developing world.

PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF, Brazil (through interpreter): Mandela’s fight and that of the South African people as a whole became a paradigm, a model not only for this continent, but also for those who fight for justice, freedom and equality.

GWEN IFILL: And Cuban President Raul Castro paid special tribute to Mandela’s call for reconciliation after winning his long fight for freedom.

PRESIDENT RAUL CASTRO, Cuba (through interpreter): I remember at this moment his bond of affection with Fidel Castro. Fidel has said — and I quote — “Nelson Mandela will not go down in history for the 27 consecutive years he spent incarcerated without ever renouncing his ideas; he will go down in history because he was capable of cleaning up his soul from the poison that such an unfair punishment could have planted there.”

GWEN IFILL: At one point, President Obama greeted Castro with a handshake, a gesture that drew attention around the world. White House aides later described it as an unplanned encounter.

The atmosphere was notably less friendly for South African President Jacob Zuma, whose government is awash in corruption scandals.

(BOOING)

GWEN IFILL: He was roundly booed when he rose to speak, but then went on with his keynote address.

PRESIDENT JACOB ZUMA, South Africa: There is no one like Madiba. He was one of a kind. Today, Madiba is no more. He leaves behind a nation that loves him dearly. He leaves a continent that is truly proud to call him an African.

He leaves the people of the world who embraced him as their own beloved icon. Most importantly, he leaves behind a deeply entrenched legacy of freedom, human rights and democracy in our country.

ARCHBISHOP DESMOND TUTU, Nobel laureate: I want to hear a pin drop!

GWEN IFILL: At the end of the service, an enthusiastic Archbishop Desmond Tutu quieted the crowd for a closing blessing.

DESMOND TUTU: We promise God that we are going to follow the example of Nelson Mandela.

Amen. Amen.

GWEN IFILL: Beginning tomorrow, Mandela will lie in state in the union buildings of Pretoria. He was inaugurated there as the nation’s first black president in 1994. And, on Sunday, his body will journey to his childhood village of Qunu, where he will be laid to rest.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, familiar to you as a former NewsHour correspondent, has covered Mandela and South Africa for decades for us and for others. Now a special correspondent for NBC News, she’s on assignment in the country once again.

I spoke to her a short time ago.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, what a ceremony, what a week, what a day. Tell us about it.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT, NBC News: Thank you, Gwen, for having me to tell you about it, because it has been quite a week and quite a day.

Of course, getting the news was stunning, even though we all anticipated it. And that’s what everybody I know both here and in the United States is saying. You know, even though people knew that the end was near, when it came, people were very sad. And getting ready for this day, as you have seen the crowds, here in South Africa, no one talks about death or dying. They talk about passing on or transitioning.

So the celebrations didn’t come as a surprise to me, because when people do transition, many South Africans, traditional ones, still go to the graveside and talk to the ancestors for advice, and they come away thinking that they have gotten some help solving their problems. And now Madiba, the father, Tata, is an ancestor.

And, of course, today was just a joyful time for the people of South Africa. The stores were all open, but the people — and the rains were pouring. But people still flooded to the stadium, not quite full, but there was enough representation to have a joyful time.

GWEN IFILL: There were more 100 head of states, we heard, there today. Was security a concern? Did they handle that well?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You know, the one thing that South Africa does exceedingly well is a big event, like the 2010 World Cup.

And, as far as I could tell, the security was quite good. I was a few miles away in Soweto, but most of the heads of state were behind plate glass. And yet, when I saw them walking in, I saw camera crews charging up to them and people talking to them. So it was not as strict as it might have been. Of course, I didn’t see what happened when President Obama came.

There was one man on the radio who was talking to one of their anchors. And he was talking about the beast. And then he said something about Obama. And he said, are you calling Obama the beast? He said, no, no, no, that’s the car he rides in.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: You know, there was an awkward moment, though, on stage, or at least it was taken that way in many corners, of the president greeting Raul Castro on stage, a stage that was full of a lot of people who probably have problematic relations with the United States.

Was that received the same way over there that it was here?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, people thought about Mandela again, because it was Mandela who talked to President Clinton and other people about the need to — for the South Africans to remain friends with people who were friends with them during the struggle. And that included people like Castro and Arafat and Gadhafi.

And he also encouraged people to make up. And, you know, the other day, I was talking to his daughter Zindzi, who said that the one word that they would like the whole world to think about, if nothing else, when they think about their father is forgiveness. So that was like a big deal, kind of, Madiba is an ancestor, would be smiling, I think.

Now, the next step is maybe problematic, but at least there was that.

GWEN IFILL: It was interesting to me to see the difference between the reaction the president received when he rose to speak, the rolls of cheers and enthusiasm, and the — and the reaction that President Zuma when he rose to speak, which were boos. What a contrast.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, there are two huge differences, I think. Both are sons of Africa in the eyes of Africans.

President Obama is very comfortable giving a speech, even if he’s reading it, whether it’s on a teleprompter or even a paper. And he clearly — it seems to me, from having read a lot of his writing, including his first book, “Dreams From My Father,” you know, I saw Obama in that speech.

And with President Zuma, when he’s speaking Zulu, he’s very dynamic. But when he has to speak English and do it before an international audience off of a — off a paper, he’s generally very uncomfortable. And, of course, this is an uncomfortable time in South Africa. I continue to say that it’s a young democracy approaching 20 years, but there are things that are quite troublesome that most people here are talking about in the newspapers and on the radio.

Although today was a day of memory of a great man, people did continue to talk about the huge numbers of unemployed people, including the largest number of unemployed are youth, who are being very poorly educated, if at all. There are rolling mass actions on a continuing basis, people protesting the lack of basic services.

So, I think all of those things — I, frankly, was surprised that people booed President Zuma, because, normally, events like that are packed with people who support the African National Congress, the ruling party. So that came as a surprise to me on that level. But, on the other level of the disenchantment among people, I wasn’t surprised.

GWEN IFILL: So, what — what to expect this weekend that we go to a burial now in his ancestral home?

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, right now, I’m sitting in Pretoria. Just behind me are the Union Buildings, where tomorrow and I think and for the next I think about three days, the president will lie in — the former president will lie in state.

I think the coffin will be open. And if the weather continues like this — well, even if it does, I think people will come, because they’re trying to show their love for the man who made the country what it can be, let’s put it that way. And so, for three days, he will be right behind me in the big building there.

And then on Sunday, I believe it is, he will go to Qunu, which is his ancestral — ancestral home. He was born in Mvezo, which is not far from there, but, as a young child, his mother moved the family to Qunu. And I think he thinks of that as his home.

I saw him there many years ago. It’s a small rural village where he as a child growing up, as we pointed out in our NewsHour memory of him, grew up herding sheep and goats and cows and whatever else they had around there. And he had often said that that was where he wanted to transition.

Unfortunately, I think that the — his health situation prevented him from going there.

GWEN IFILL: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, my friend, thank you so much for joining us.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, my friend, Gwen, for having me.