SOWETO, South Africa -- South Africans cheered rapturously as President Obama paid tribute to the late Nelson Mandela at a state memorial service Tuesday, calling him a "great soul" who inspired the U.S. leader and millions of others to be better people.
"We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," Obama said. "But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world, you can make his life’s work your own.
"Over 30 years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities -- to others, and to myself -- and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today," Obama said.
As foreign dignitaries representing more than 100 countries joined South Africans in mourning the anti-apartheid hero and former president of the country, the crowd at the service at a Soweto stadium cheered loudly for various world leaders, in a rousing thanks to Western leaders and others who supported the anti-apartheid movement.
The stadium erupted with emotion at the arrival of President Jacob Zuma, who, like Mandela, spent years in prison on Robben Island for opposing apartheid. Deafening cheers rang out for Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and rose again as former President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s deputy and successor, took his seat. Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela arrived looking drawn and haggard and, with daughters Zenani and Zindzi, also drew clamorous support from the crowd.
Machel embraced Madikizela-Mandela before she took her seat.
Former President Frederik W. de Klerk, who negotiated an end to white minority rule with Mandela, was also cheered heartily.
There was also a rapturous welcome for other leaders, including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Obama’s plane landed just after 7 a.m. and his car was caught in morning traffic, according to local reports.
In his speech, Obama said Mandela managed to achieve change for his people through persistence, struggle and sacrifice, comparing the Nobel Peace Prize winner to Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
"Given the sweep of his life, and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men," Obama said.
"But Madiba [Mandela's clan name] himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears; his miscalculations along with his victories. 'I’m not a saint,' he said, 'unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.'
"It was precisely because he could admit to imperfection -- because he could be so full of good humor, even mischief, despite the heavy burdens he carried -- that we loved him so. He was not a bust made of marble; he was a man of flesh and blood -- a son and husband, a father and a friend.
"That is why we learned so much from him; that is why we can learn from him still. For nothing he achieved was inevitable. In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; persistence and faith. He tells us what’s possible not just in the pages of dusty history books, but in our own lives as well."
Obama said Mandela was comforted in prison by the thought that he was master of his fate and captain of his soul.
"What a great soul it was. We will miss him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela."
Twitter: @latimesdixonCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times