(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
JOHANNESBURG -- Thousands of South Africans filled trains and buses and headed to a soccer stadium where President Obama and other leaders from around the globe were honoring Nelson Mandela in a memorial service Tuesday.
11Alive's Brenda Wood and Jon Shirek are in South Africa covering the memorial. See their coverage here.
Extreme levels of security were in place at FNB Stadium, where some 100,000 people were expected to attend the memorial for the nation's first black president, Nobel Prize winner and leader of his nation's struggle to establish democracy.
Undeterred by rain, overflow crowds were being directed to other locations around the city where large video screens were set up to accommodate tens of thousands. The government opened turnstiles to provide free subway and commuter transportation to the memorial and banned traffic and parking near the stadium.
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Rail workers in yellow jackets directed crowds onto trains, which were filled will joyous South Africans eager to celebrate the life of Madiba, as they know him, as well as mourn the loss of his passing at age 95.
Train passengers sang a Zulu song about Mandela as well as liberation songs from the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s, 1970s and earlier, which today are taught in South African schools. The crowds cheered and stomped feet so vigorously the rail cars bounced. Many were decked out in the colors of the African National Congress, which Mandela once led.
"We're probably going to be the most united we've ever been this week., which was his dream,'' said John Thomas, senior pastor at King of Kings Church, Cape Town, who was riding the train to FNB stadium.
"The mood of the country is his dream. Everyone now has dignity and freedom,'' the pastor said.
Security was the tightest ever seen in this country, The Times newspaper of Johannesburg reported, as 70 or more presidents, prime ministers and royalty from around the globe were present.
There was some delicate diplomatic footwork in place as well, as protocol officers timed the memorial service carefully to keep feuding leaders from being seated alongside each other or other potentially embarrassing encounters. Cuban leader Raul Castro was being kept apart from Obama, for example, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was being placed away from British Prime Minister David Cameron and his predecessor, Tony Blair.
Kirsten Thomson, 38, and her friend Leyya Nihal, 41, traveling by train from the wealthy section of Sandton, said they were witnessing history and celebrating the life of the man they said gave the country its freedom.
Mandela, who endured 27 years of imprisonment by the white regime before his release in 1990, led a movement that dismantled the minority white rule that had imposed a harsh system of racial segregation that denied majority blacks and other people of color rights as citizens.
"South Africans tend to mourn in communities" Nihal said,.
'She recalled two occasions she met Mandela."Everybody was in awe. He was very tall and elegant and had a very strong presence.''
Thomas, the white pastor from Cape Town, said he runs an AIDS/HIV clinic called Living Hope that was first funded 12 years ago with U.S. aid directed by the George W. Bush administration to combat the disease that wreaked havoc on the African continent. He said success of his abstinence-based program had contributed to a decline in new infections among the 15 to 19 year old age group from 23% annually to 5.4%.
"It's a value-based program,'' he said. "We teach them that you are a valuable person made by God.''
Crowds began entering the stadium at 6 a.m., five hours ahead of the scheduled start. Rain sent many into the open -air stadium's covered upper deck areas but failed to dampen enthusiasm for what was to be a celebration of Mandela's life.
The 95,000-capacity soccer venue was where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup soccer games.
After the memorial, his body will lie in state for three days at Pretoria, once the seat of white power, before a funeral and burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province.
More Coverage of Remembering Mandela:
- PHOTOS of Brenda Wood covering the Mandela memorial in South Africa
- The world gathers for Nelson Mandela's memorial
- Timeline of Nelson Mandela's life and legacy
- SLIDESHOW: Mandela through the years
- PHOTOS: Nelson Mandela's visit to Atlanta
- Mandela to be Buried Dec. 15
- Atlanta photographer shares her candid photos of Mandela
- Atlantans mourn Mandela, fill monument with flowers
- Ex-US President Carter heading to Mandela memorial