By Robyn Dixon
10:46 PM PST, December 9, 2013
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Thousands of South Africans filed into the 94,000-seat soccer stadium in Soweto early Tuesday for the state memorial service of the nation’s apartheid-struggle hero, Nelson Mandela.
Low gray clouds and misty rain cast a somber mood, but the atmosphere in the stadium was joyful and exuberant, as the crowds sang liberation struggle songs, danced, ululated, whistled and blasted vuvuzelas – the plastic trumpets that South Africans blow at soccer matches and joyful occasions, waiting for the service to begin.
Outside the stadium, shaped to like a great calabash, or African bowl fashioned from a gourd, flags flew at half-staff.
The crowd pressed forward, wearing African National Congress regalia in the party’s colors of green, gold and black, making their way through the single turnstile. Women were clad in ANC clothing, many with dresses bearing Mandela’s face.
President Obama’s plane landed just after 7 a.m. Ninety other world leaders were expected, along with 10 former heads of state or government. President Obama is to speak at the service, along with South African President Jacob Zuma, members of the Mandela family, and global leaders.
The service was due to begin at 11 a.m. with the stirring notes of the South African national anthem, followed by interfaith prayers.
One of Mandela’s closest friends, Andrew Mlangeni, who occupied the cell next to him at Robben Island, was to speak first, followed by a representative of the Mandela family, General Thanduxolo Mandela. Four of Mandela’s grandchildren, Mbuso Mandela, Andile Mandela, Zozuko Dlamini and Phumla Mandela were to speak next followed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the leaders of the African Union, Brazil, China, Namibia, India and Cuba.
With only a fraction of the stadium seats filled by about 8 a.m. the sound of the crowd was deafening.
The stadium is the last place Nelson Mandela appeared in public, at the close of the 2010 soccer World Cup, hosted by South Africa.
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