JOHANNESBURG – A teeming, colourful sea of mourners danced and sang under a cold, exhilarating South African downpour Tuesday as tens of thousands of people — including political leaders from around the world — gathered to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela.
A powerful coalition of politically diverse emissaries from across Canada was on hand for the four-hour ceremony, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and four of his predecessors — Jean Chretien, Kim Campbell, Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark.
“Today was more a celebration than a funeral,” Harper said as the ceremony came to a close.
“A celebration of a very long life, but a very important life.”
He called Mandela “one of the giants of history.”
A steady, cold rain — hailed by some as a blessing in South African culture — appeared to keep many away from the Soweto soccer stadium, where those who did brave the elements heard stirring calls to action from the likes of U.S. President Barack Obama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Chretien said the exuberance made it unlike any memorial he has seen.
“It is a great occasion of respect because he’s admired by everybody,” he said.
Chretien recalled that his government made Mandela an honorary citizen of Canada.
“Whenever he would meet me, he would say, ‘Hi, my prime minister’.”
“Obama in great form,” Campbell enthused on Twitter. “We are cold, wet but still exhilarated!”
Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who was also part of the delegation, worked for Mandela in the early 1990s, when South Africa was in transition out of apartheid and developing a new constitution.
“He was a very tough taskmaster,” Redford said as she reflected on her time with Mandela.
“He always had a sense of humour and I think that’s what kept him on track.”
The soaking rain may have dampened attendance — thousands of seats remained unoccupied throughout the morning — but it could not beat down the exuberance as South Africans blended tears with joy in a celebration of the life of a man they see as the father of their country.
“In our culture the rain is a blessing,” said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. “Only great, great people are memorialized with it. Rain is life. This is perfect weather for us on this occasion.”
Thousands cheered, sang, danced and blew ear-splitting salutes on vuvuzelas, the plastic horns that were a deafening fixture of the 2010 World Cup — the tournament that also marked Mandela’s last public appearance in this stadium.
In a speech that received thunderous applause, Obama urged people to apply the lessons of Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison under a racist regime, embraced his enemies when he finally walked to freedom and promoted forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.
“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace,” said Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country. Obama said that when he was a student, Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities — to others, and to myself — and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”
Before taking the stage, Obama raised eyebrows when he shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, a simple gesture that stoked talk of a possible rapprochement between the leaders of two Cold War foes.
It initially appeared that only 11 members of the Canadian delegation would be allowed inside the stadium after a decision taken earlier by the South African protocol office.
The Prime Minister’s Office was told that Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, as well as Redford, three other premiers and several MPs who made the 18-hour journey for the service, would not be allowed inside.
However, all of the Canadians were able to get in during the confusion that reigned at security checkpoints as thousands of people poured through.
Mulcair was elated that he was able to attend.
Describing the memorial as “very emotional,” he said South Africans have heeded the message of peace that Mandela gave them and are using it in the continued effort to build their nation.
“People realize that Nelson Mandela accomplished a great deal, but there’s also a sense that they understand it’s not over, that they’ve got to keep going.
“That’s why it’s important for Canada to be there,” he said.
“To be a friend . . . to help with our own experience.”
Harper and his wife, Laureen were also joined by former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean, Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo and Gaston Barban, Canada’s high commissioner to South Africa.
They joined heads of state and government from around the world, as well as international celebrities and business leaders.
“It’s truly an honour to be here with governors general and all the former prime ministers,” said Redford.
For Atleo, the words spoken by some of Mandela’s grandchildren drew connections with aboriginal struggles in Canada.
And he said Canada can learn from the former South African president.
“(Mandela) changed the conversation, from conflict to reconciliation, from poverty to sharing, from inequality to equality,” Atleo said.
“We as well have a truth and reconciliation commission happening right now, just like occurred in South Africa.”
“So, too, do we need to follow suit, and have structural changes occur in Canada.”
Among the other notables in attendance at the memorial were French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Cuban President Raul Castro. Celebrities included South African actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono.
Harper and company were greeted with applause when they were announced to the crowd, although the response was dwarfed by the thunderous roar that greeted the American delegation, which included Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The crowd erupted in songs of celebration and loud cheers whenever Mandela’s name was spoken during the proceedings. But they booed the arrival of President Jacob Zuma, whose tenure has been troubled by scandals.
The Canadians watched the services with keen interest. Laureen Harper seemed especially moved by the celebrations, occasionally leaning forward in her seat to get a better view of the tumult.
Before heading to the stadium, Harper had an informal breakfast with prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Key from Australia and New Zealand.
Harper’s spokesman Carl Vallee would not say what the leaders discussed.
While the boisterous memorial was going on, a more muted tribute rang out over Ottawa. The Peace Tower bells played the song Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the official anthem of Mandela’s African National Congress during the apartheid era and a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement
Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, before the burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.
With files from The Associated Press