JOHANNESBURG: South Africa on Saturday began preparations to host United States (US) President Barack Obama and other world leaders eager to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela during 10 days of mourning for the anti-apartheid icon.
On Friday South African President Jacob Zuma announced the mourning period for Mandela, the founding father of modern South Africa and its first black leader, after he died late Thursday aged 95, surrounded by friends and family.
Obama, America’s first black president, will travel to South Africa next week, the White House said, joining a raft of world leaders for a huge December 10 memorial service.
Mandela’s body will lie in state in Pretoria for three days before he receives a state burial on December 15 in his boyhood home of Qunu.
The logistics are daunting for hosting the great and the good who plan to fly in from around world to honor the universally respected statesman.
The official SAPA news agency quoted a travel industry official saying that “very little accommodation will be available in Johannesburg and Pretoria” in coming weeks as the South African government and various consulates block book hotel rooms.
Memorial events begin Saturday with thousands expected at a wreath-laying event in a Johannesburg park.
Obama and his wife Michelle will travel to South Africa together with former first couple George W. Bush and her wife Laura.
Ex-president Bill Clinton, who was in office when Mandela took power to become South Africa’s first black president, also said that he would be making the trip with his family.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the Obamas would “participate in memorial events” without giving details.
In a tribute shortly after the revered statesman’s death was made public, Obama mourned Mandela as a “profoundly good” man who “took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice”.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he would attend the memorial to honour “a truly great world leader, an extraordinary man”.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will also be among those flying in next week, her office said.
On Friday, ordinary South Africans across the country poured out onto the streets in a riot of colour, dance and song to celebrate the life of their beloved ex-leader, known affectionately as Madiba.
In Cape Town, a crowd of thousands from all races and ages gathered for a multi-faith celebration at the site where Mandela made his first public speech after nearly three decades in apartheid jail.
“Tonight we stand in solidarity as the people of Cape Town — black, white, coloured, Indian, all the religions together,” said mayor Patricia De Lille.
South Africa’s archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, a fellow Nobel prize winner, praised Mandela as an “incredible gift that God gave us”.
Fighting back tears, Tutu said his old friend was “a unifier from the moment he walked out of prison”.
Mandela spent 27 years in an apartheid prison before becoming president and unifying his country with a message of reconciliation after the end of white minority rule. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with South Africa’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk, in 1993.
Palestinians and Israelis, Beijing and the Dalai Lama, Washington and Tehran all paid heartfelt tribute to Mandela, describing him as one of the towering figures of the 20th century who inspired young and old with his fight for equality.
North Korea, in its first official reaction on Saturday, sent its condolences to South Africa, praising Mandela’s “struggle against racism and for democracy”.
Flags flew at half-mast in numerous countries, including the US, France and Britain, and at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
In Paris, the Eiffel Tower lit up in green, red, yellow and blue to symbolise the South African flag, while India declared five days of mourning for a man the premier labelled “a true Gandhian”.
And a Paris summit of some 40 African leaders was overshadowed by Mandela’s death. An old associate, African Union Commission president Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, said Mandela “was a son who became larger than the continent”.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said the best way to remember Mandela was to free the African continent of poverty, unrest and disease.
“We will do it in your name,” she said.
In Brazil, organizers of the 2014 football World Cup flashed Mandela’s image up on a giant screen and held a minute’s silence before the groups’ draw.
Even Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar al-Assad, ventured a homage on his official Facebook page, calling Mandela “a torch for the resistance and liberation from racism, hatred, occupation and injustice.”
While the ailing former statesman’s death had long been expected after a spate of hospitalizations, Thursday’s announcement came as a burst of searing sadness nonetheless.
Mandela had waged a long battle against a recurring lung infection and had been receiving treatment at home since September following a lengthy hospital stay.
Mandela’s two youngest daughters were in London watching the premiere of his biopic
“Long Walk to Freedom”, along with Britain’s Prince William, when they learned of his death.
British actor Idris Elba, who portrayed Mandela in the film, said: “We have lost one of the greatest human beings to have walked this Earth.”
Mandela’s eldest grandson Mandla expressed gratitude for the international outpouring of support, saying the messages had “heartened and overwhelmed” the family.
Outside his house in the upmarket Houghton suburb and at his former residence in the once blacks-only township of Soweto, scores of well-wishers danced and sang old songs of struggle to celebrate Madiba.
His December 10 memorial service will take place in a 90,000-plus capacity Soweto stadium.
Once considered a terrorist by the United States and Britain for his support of violence against the apartheid regime, at the time of his death Mandela was an almost unimpeachable moral icon.
He was freed from prison in 1990 to lead the African National Congress (ANC) in negotiations with the white minority rulers, which culminated in the first multi-racial elections in 1994.
A victorious Mandela served a single term as president before taking up a new role as a roving elder statesman and leading AIDS campaigner. He retired from public life in 2004.
Born in 1918, Mandela started a career as a lawyer in Johannesburg in parallel with his political activism.
He became commander of the armed wing of the then-banned ANC and underwent military training in Algeria and Ethiopia in the early 1960s.
He was arrested and sentenced to life in jail for sabotage in 1964. At his trial, he delivered the speech that was to become the manifesto of the anti-apartheid movement.
“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society,” he said from the dock. “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He served most of his sentence on Robben Island, where he was held in spartan conditions. When he was finally released on February 11, 1990, he walked out of prison with his fist raised alongside his then-wife Winnie.
After the ANC won the country’s first multi-racial elections, Mandela declared his intention to establish “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world”.
Critics said his five-year presidency was marred by corruption and rising levels of crime. But his successors have never enjoyed the same levels of respect or affection.
Mandela divorced his second wife Winnie in 1996. He found new love in retirement with Graca Machel, the widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel, whom he married on his 80th birthday.
Mandela is survived by three daughters, 18 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.
His death has left his family divided over his wealth, with a legal feud underway.