- - Tuesday, December 10, 2013

JOHANNESBURG — Thousands of South Africans sang and chanted in the rain at a Soweto soccer stadium Tuesday in honor of Nelson Mandela, joining scores of world leaders who came to pay tribute to the former South African president and Nobel Peace laureate.

President Obama received the largest cheer of all foreign visitors when he took the podium during the memorial service. He offered memories from his youth and how he was inspired by Mr. Mandela’s example, calling on all who cherish freedom to continue the fight.

“Our work is not done,” Mr. Obama said. “Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.”

The audience included more than 90 world leaders, mostly from democracies but also from China, Cuba, Vietnam and Zimbabwe, where citizens still may be jailed for dissent.

The presence of so many leaders made for some difficult seating arrangements.

Sitting in one section of the small VIP area were Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Knesset speaker Yuli-Yoel Edelstein and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Longtime Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was seated not far from the prime ministers of Canada, Australia and Britain — all of whom have banned him from entering their countries because of human rights violations and questionable elections in his southern African nation.

More than 20 of the governments represented at the memorial service stand accused by Amnesty International and other human rights groups of holding prisoners for political, not criminal, acts.

Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day when Mr. Mandela and F. W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring peace to their country. Mr. De Klerk, a political rival who became friends with Mr. Mandela, was at Tuesday’s service.

Mr. Mandela said in his Nobel acceptance speech: “We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born.”

Crowds from across Johannesburg had lined up all night to enter the arena in the black suburb of Soweto, where the final game of soccer’s World Cup tournament took place in 2010. But rain that began early Tuesday reduced attendance, and more than one-quarter of the 95,000-seat stadium was empty.

Mr. Mandela’s family was led by his widow, Graca Machel, and his ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whom he divorced in 1996. Also in the stadium were his children and grandchildren.

Last to speak at Tuesday’s service was South African President Jacob Zuma, who thanked the world leaders and the people of South Africa for giving such a send-off to his late friend and colleague.

Mr. Mandela’s body will lie in state at Union Buildings, the seat of government in the national capital, Pretoria. He will be buried Sunday near his childhood home in the Xhosa-speaking region 550 miles east of Johannesburg.

Mourners from South Africa and abroad have been asked to stay clear of the funeral because of a lack of hotels and security in the isolated area.

Even in Johannesburg, there were concerns about hosting so many visitors and VIPs in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates. Army and police vehicles patrolled throughout the city, and aircraft were banned from flying over the stadium during the ceremony.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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