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World leaders, South Africans honor Mandela

JOHANNESBURG--U.S. President Barack Obama implored thousands gathered in a cold, rainy stadium and millions watching around the world on Tuesday to carry forward Nelson Mandela's mission of erasing injustice and inequality.

In a speech that received thunderous applause at FNB stadium and a standing ovation, Obama called on people to apply the lessons of Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison under a racist regime, embraced his enemies when he finally walked to freedom and ushered in a new era of forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.

“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace,” said Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country. Obama said that when he was a student, Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities — to others, and to myself — and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”

Addressing the memorial service for Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, Obama pointed out that “around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs; and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.”

In his tribute, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that Mandela had managed to unite people in death, much as he had in life.

“Look around this stage ... we see leaders representing many points of view ... all here, all united,” he said.

Among the nearly 100 heads of state and government were some from countries like Cuba that don't hold fully democratic elections. On the way to the podium, Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, undersocing a recent warming of relations between Cuba and the U.S.

In contrast to the wild applause given to Obama, South African President Jacob Zuma was booed. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, remains the front-runner ahead of elections next year.

The weather and public transportation problems rain kept many people away. The 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.

Some of the dozens of trains reserved to ferry people to the stadium were delayed due to a power failure. A Metrorail services spokeswoman, Lilian Mofokeng, said more than 30,000 mourners were successfully transported by train.

The mood was celebratory. A dazzling mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities was in attendance.

Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president who succeeded Mandela, got a rousing cheer as he entered the stands. French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waved and bowed to spectators who sang praise for Mandela, seen by many South Africans as the father of the nation.

“I would not have the life I have today if it was not for him,” said Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a postgraduate marketing student who arrived hours before the stadium gates opened. “He was jailed so we could have our freedom.”

Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said in the stadium that he grew up during white rule in a “privileged position” as a white South African and that Mandela helped whites work through a burden of guilt.

“His reconciliation allowed whites to be released themselves,” Lair said. “I honestly don't think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela.”

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In this image from TV, U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, in the rain for a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela, Tuesday Dec. 10. (AP)

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