Workers rush to prepare for huge Nelson Mandela memorial service

JOHANNESBURG – Clouds hung over Johannesburg as a Canadian delegation arrived Monday to be part of the massive outpouring of grief and celebration following the death of Nelson Mandela.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiled and waved to a small gathering of South African and Canadian diplomatic officials as he stepped out of his plane onto a tarmac at Air Force Base Waterkloof, north of the city itself.

As the Canadian delegation made their way into the city, crews were still constructing the stage that will form the centre of what is expected to be a huge memorial for Mandela on Tuesday.

The frantic preparations began shortly after Mandela died last Thursday at age 95, marking the end of an era for both South Africa and the African continent.

The Canadians flew for 18 hours to witness a country both suffering the pain of losing a world-renowned leader and swelling with the pride of having had him as president.

Harper will be joined at the memorial by former prime ministers Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien, Joe Clark and Kim Campbell.

“He had a wonderful sense of humour and the most magnificent smile,” Mulroney said as he fondly recalled many private meetings with Mandela.

In the 1980s, Mulroney made Canada a key player in the struggle against the apartheid regime that had imprisoned Mandela for 27 years.

Chretien followed up years later when his Liberal government made Mandela an honorary Canadian citizen, a symbol of Canada’s respect for the man that still holds today.

“I want to pay homage to an incredible man,” Chretien said in advance of the memorial.

“He was a great example for democracy.”

Final arrangements for the gathering of world leaders were still coming together late Monday as South Africa dealt with the sudden international outpouring of respect for Mandela.

The service is to be held in a soccer stadium in Soweto, where Mandela made his last public appearance during the 2010 World Cup.

The Canadian delegation at the service includes Harper and the four former prime ministers, as well as former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean and NDP Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair.

There are also premiers from Nova Scotia, Alberta, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, five MPs, a former senator and the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Former prime minister Clark, who was Mulroney’s foreign minister when his government pushed South Africa to free Mandela, was already in South Africa.

Following the memorial in Johannesburg, the delegation will join a procession Wednesday in Pretoria, where Mandela`s body lies in state.

A state funeral will be held Sunday.