Four U.S. presidents will gather in South Africa on Tuesday to pay tribute to the late Nelson Mandela at a memorial service where they’ll be joined by dozens of world leaders and tens of thousands of mourners.
President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama flew to Johannesburg on Monday on Air Force One in the company of former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, as well as former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were traveling separately to the memorial service for the late South African president and anti-apartheid revolutionary.
Mr. Mandela, 95, died Thursday. He led the movement that ended South Africa’s system of legal segregation in the early 1990s and became the nation’s first black president in 1994.
Mr. Obama will speak at the service, which will be held in Johannesburg’s 95,000-seat soccer stadium. The president has credited Mr. Mandela with inspiring him to pursue a political career while he was in college, and an aide to Mr. Obama said the president wants to make the point that Mr. Mandela’s greatness “wasn’t preordained.”
“He was an extraordinary political leader, an extraordinary leader of a movement to bring about change,” White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said. “One of the points the president will make is that it took decades of persistence and talent and a wide range of very unique skills to make Nelson Mandela the figure that he was, and make him capable of bringing about that change.”
Although each man was his nation’s first black president and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett has said Mr. Obama is aware “the challenges he has faced pale in comparison to those faced by President Mandela,” who was imprisoned for 27 years by South Africa’s apartheid-era authorities.
Among the other world leaders who will attend the memorial are British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Mr. Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, also will attend.
Celebrities expected at the service include the Irish singer and activist Bono, TV mogul Oprah Winfrey and the British pop group Spice Girls.
On the long flight from Washington, Mr. Obama worked on his speech and reminisced in the plane’s conference room with the Bushes about Mr. Mandela. The president met Mr. Mandela only once, in 2005 when he was a senator, although they spoke occasionally by phone in recent years.
Mr. Rhodes said the flight with the Obamas, the Bushes and Mrs. Clinton was “a unique experience.” He said Mr. Mandela “intersected with so many different American political leaders of both parties over the years, and so each of them has their own experience with Mandela.”
Also on the flight were Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., White House national security adviser Susan E. Rice and Ms. Jarrett.
George H.W. Bush is the only living U.S. president who won’t attend the memorial service; the 89-year-old is not well enough to make long trips. More than two dozen members of Congress also are expected to attend.
Flags in the U.S. are being flown at half-staff in honor of Mr. Mandela, a rare honor bestowed previously on foreign leaders such as Winston Churchill and Pope John Paul II.
The president’s hastily arranged trip required dozens of Secret Service agents, armored presidential vehicles and advance officials to prepare the way and arrange for security.
Mr. Obama also skipped the annual Christmas party with members of Congress at the White House. Vice President Joseph R. Biden took the president’s place as host.
Earlier Monday, Mr. Biden and his wife, Jill, visited the South Africa Embassy in Washington and signed a condolence book.
“On behalf of the American people, our deepest condolences to the people of South Africa for the passing of Nelson Mandela,” Mr. Biden wrote in the book. “But more than that, our profound gratitude — for his compassion, his humility, and his courage.”