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Mandela: The fondest farewell the world has ever seen

Farewell to an icon. For most South Africans — and most of the world's leaders — there was only one place to be Tuesday: the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Soweto, Johannesburg. (Failing that, the nearest live feed.)

It's not in a church, it's not in a city hall — it's in an outdoor stadium with space for 95,000 people. It was there, at the soccer World Cup final three years ago, that Mandela would appear in public for the last time. You'd think the two occasions couldn't be more different; but today, as then, a crowd of tens of thousands danced, sang and roared their approval for South Africa's best beloved president. Which other political figure could fill a stadium? In the pouring rain? Certainly not South Africa's current president, Jacob Zuma, who was loudly and repeatedly booed during the proceedings. And probably none of the more than 70 current and former heads of state who have flown in from around the world to be there (with the possible exception of U.S. President Barack Obama, who received some of the biggest cheers of the day).

That rain, by the way, is truly torrential. Yet, said master of ceremonies and ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa: "We were not able to stop the rain, but this is how Nelson Mandela would have wanted to be sent on. These are blessings. In the African tradition, it means the gods are welcoming you and the gates of heaven are open."

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Obama led world tributes to Mandela, hailing him as 'a giant of history' at a rain-soaked memorial attended by tens of thousands of South Africans united in proud, noisy celebration.

The FNB stadium in Johannesburg was packed with people who came to remember South Africa's first democratically-elected leader and anti-apartheid icon. 

"He was not a bust made of marble, he was a man of flesh and blood," Obama said of Mandela. "It is hard to eulogize any man... how much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "He showed the awesome power of forgiveness — and of connecting people with each other... the true meaning of peace."

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The memorial service — a prelude to Mandela's state funeral on Sunday — began around an hour behind schedule, at 12 p.m. local time and wrapped up around four hours later.

By late morning, thousands were filing into the stadium in the city's Soweto area amid long lines and pouring rain. Many of the venue's 95,000 seats went empty, possibly due to the wet weather or the fact that the service took place on a work day. 

Hosting the ceremony, Cyril Ramaphosa, fellow anti-apartheid activist and deputy president of Mandela's African National Congress party, said the rain was a good omen.

By late morning, thousands were filing into the stadium in the city's Soweto area amid long lines and pouring rain. Many of the venue's 95,000 seats went empty, possibly due to the wet weather or the fact that the service took place on a work day. 

Hosting the ceremony, Cyril Ramaphosa, fellow anti-apartheid activist and deputy president of Mandela's African National Congress party, said the rain was a good omen.

More than 70 current or former world leaders were expected, more than have attended any such service since Pope John Paul II's funeral in 2005.

Alongside Mandela's family and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, foreign dignitaries including UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, U.S. President Obama, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Cuban President Raul Castro addressed the service. 

Other famous guests included retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, actress Charlize Theron, supermodel Naomi Campbell and U2 frontman Bono.

The stadium was the site of Mandela's final appearance in public, when he attended the 2010 soccer World Cup final.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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