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Hundreds of world leaders, dignitaries as well as ordinary South Africans are paying their final respects to Nelson Mandela, as the revered statesman lies in state until Friday in Pretoria.
Mandela who emerged from prison after 27 years to lead South Africa out of decades of apartheid, died Thursday of a long-standing lung disease it was announced by South African President Jacob Zuma.
Mandela was 95.
President Barack Obama, who called Mandela the “great liberator,” delivered a eulogy for the fallen leader at a service held Tuesday in Johannesburg as part a week of memorial activities.
He was the first of six foreign dignitaries to eulogize Mandela. He was followed by Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, then by the vice president of China, the presidents of Namibia and Indian, and President Raul Castro of Cuba.
Obama was joined at the service by three of his predecessors—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Dignitaries at the stadium, representing more than 90 countries, were protected by bulletproof glass.
“He is now resting. He is now at peace,” Zuma said. “Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”
The former president battled health issues in recent months, including a recurring lung infection that led to numerous hospitalizations.
With advancing age and bouts of illness, Mandela retreated to a quiet life at his boyhood home in the nation’s Eastern Cape Province, where he said he was most at peace.
Despite rare public appearances, he held a special place in the nation’s consciousness.
A hero to Blacks and Whites
In a nation healing from the scars of apartheid, Mandela became a moral compass.
His defiance of White minority rule and incarceration for fighting against segregation focused the world’s attention on apartheid—the legalized racial segregation enforced by the South African government until 1994.
In his lifetime, he was a man of complexities. He went from a militant freedom fighter, to a prisoner, to a unifying figure, to an elder statesman.
Years after his 1999 retirement from the presidency, Mandela was considered the ideal head of state. He became a yardstick for African leaders, who consistently fell short when measured against him.
Warm, lanky and charismatic in his silk, earth-toned dashikis, he was quick to admit his shortcomings, endearing him further in a culture in which leaders rarely do.
His steely gaze disarmed opponents. So did his flashy smile.
Former South African President F.W. de Klerk, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993 for transitioning the nation from a system of racial segregation, described their first meeting.
“I had read, of course, everything I could read about him beforehand. I was well-briefed,” he said last year.
“I was impressed, however, by how tall he was. By the ramrod straightness of his stature, and realized that this is a very special man. He had an aura around him. He’s truly a very dignified and a very admirable person.”
For many South Africans, he was simply Madiba, his traditional clan name. Others affectionately called him “Tata,” the Xhosa word for father.