South Africa

Raúl Castro: Biggest funeral in history brings together old foes

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Obama, Raul Castro To Speak At Nelson Mandela Memorial

Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, will join Barack Obama and South Africa‘s president, Jacob Zuma, among the speakers paying tribute to Nelson Mandela on Tuesday at what has been described as the biggest funeral in history.

The memorial service in Johannesburg, in effect the first leg of a funeral that culminates with Mandela’s burial on Sunday, will also include interfaith prayers, eulogies by four of Mandela’s grandchildren and speeches by the presidents of Brazil, Namibia, India and Cuba, along with the vice-president of China. Zuma will deliver the keynote address.

For dignitaries attending the service, not least Obama and Castro, a potential diplomatic minefield awaits. But Zelda la Grange, Mandela’s personal assistant for more than a decade, told Reuters: “Tomorrow, people should all be honouring their relationship with Madiba. If it means shaking hands with the enemy, yes, I would like to see that. That is what Nelson Mandela was and actually is – bringing people together despite their differences.”

The cover of the official memorial programme bears the title “State memorial service for the late former president Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela” above a picture of South Africa‘s first black president smiling and wearing a characteristically flamboyant shirt. Inside the programme is an obituary over two pages that concludes: “Mr Mandela is survived by his wife, Graca, three daughters, 18 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.”

Obama and his wife, Michelle, will be joined by the former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Also attending are David Cameron, Ban Ki-moon, assorted princes and princesses, and celebrities including Bono, Oprah Winfrey and the Spice Girls. Mandela dubbed the last his “heroes” after meeting the pop group 16 years ago.


Clayson Monyela, South Africa’s head of public diplomacy, tweeted: “Pope John Paul’s funeral brought together 70 heads of state & 14 leaders of other regions. With #Mandela we’re already over 91 & counting.”

On Monday workers were inside the 95,000-capacity FNB stadium welding scaffolding for a stage and installing bulletproof glass to protect foreign leaders. Ground crews cut the grass in front of the venue, dubbed the “calabash” because of its shape. The stadium, where Mandela made his last public appearance, at the closing ceremony of the 2010 football World Cup, is expected to fill rapidly on Tuesday, posing a huge security and logistical challenge for South African authorities.

All police leave has been cancelled and thousands of officers called up to direct traffic, protect mourners and help the bodyguards of visiting dignitaries.

Government minister Collins Chabane said officials could not guess how many people would attend or would try to enter the stadium. “Once we see that the numbers are becoming unmanageable … access will be denied,” he said.

Chabane appealed to those who were turned away to “respond with decency”, pointing out that spillover venues with big screens had been set up.

The government will be seeking to avoid a repeat of the disarray around last year’s centenary celebrations of the African National Congress (ANC). African leaders were reportedly forced to go shopping when they found no food or bedding at their accommodation. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, apparently had to send for some grilled chicken from Nando’s.

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