World leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba's Raul Castro joined thousands of South Africans to honor Nelson Mandela on Tuesday in a memorial that will celebrate his gift for uniting enemies across political and racial divides.
Obama and former president George W. Bush and their wives Michelle and Laura arrived from Pretoria's Waterkloof air base as singing, dancing South Africans made their way through heavy rain to Johannesburg's Soccer City where the homage to Mandela will be held.
Obama and Castro, whose nations have been foes for more than half a century, are among the designated speakers at the stadium where 23 years earlier Mandela, newly freed from apartheid jail, was hailed by supporters as the hope of a new South Africa.
Coinciding with U.N. Human Rights Day, the memorial in the 95,000-seat bowl-shaped stadium is the centerpiece of a week of mourning for the globally revered statesman, who died on Thursday aged 95.
Since Mandela's death, Johannesburg has been blanketed in unseasonal cloud and rain - a sign, according to African tradition, of an esteemed elder passing on and being welcomed into the afterlife by his ancestors.
Despite the weather, the atmosphere inside the stadium was one of joy and celebration, more akin to the opening game of the 2010 soccer World Cup that pitted jubilant hosts South Africa against Mexico.
Flag-waving whites and blacks danced, blew "vuvuzela" plastic trumpets and sang anthems from the long struggle against apartheid. The packed carriages of commuter trains heading to the ground swayed side-to-side with the rhythm.
"I was here in 1990 when Mandela was freed and I am here again to say goodbye," said Beauty Pule, 51. "I am sure Mandela was proud of the South Africa he helped create. It's not perfect but no-one is perfect, and we have made great strides."
The memorial event is due to start at 1100 (4 a.m ET).
"ALL WALKS OF LIFE"
The service will pay tribute to a life of imprisonment and sometimes violent political struggle that ended in forgiveness and triumph, confirming Mandela as one of the towering figures of the 20th century.
The fact that the 90-odd visiting leaders include some from nations locked in antagonism adds resonance to the event, held at the site of Mandela's last public appearance, at the 2010 World Cup final.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will both be there. Blair has called Mugabe a dictator who should have been removed from power. Mugabe has called Blair an imperialist and once told him to "go to hell".
Such passions will be laid to one side as the world pauses to remember a man with an astonishing ability to build bridges across seemingly implacable racial and ideological divides.
"What he did in life, that's what he's doing in death. He's bringing people together from all walks of life, from the different sides of opinion, political belief, religion," Zelda la Grange, Mandela's former personal assistant, told Reuters.
South African officials had initially said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would attend, raising the possibility of a first face-to-face meeting with Obama. But Rouhani's name was not on an official list of attendees.
Celebrities are also expected, including U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey, singers Peter Gabriel and Bono, supermodel Naomi Campbell and entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Francois Pienaar, captain of South Africa's victorious 1995 rugby World Cup-winning side, was in the stands signing T-shirts for fans of "Madiba", the clan name by which Mandela is affectionately known.
Huge screens in three other soccer stadiums in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city and commercial hub, will relay the memorial service, with the rest of South Africa's 53 million people following on television.
A huge security operation was in force, with private cars banned from the area around Soccer City.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will also speak and will hold Mandela's example up as a beacon of justice, equality and human rights to be followed to create a better world.
"The people of South Africa and the entire world have lost a hero. His legacy is profound, immortal and will continue to guide the work of the United Nations," Ban said in a tribute at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg on Monday.
SPOTLIGHT ON ZUMA
South African President Jacob Zuma will give the keynote address, hoping the wave of emotion caused by Mandela's passing can assuage concerns about persisting poverty, crime and unemployment, and buoy his African National Congress (ANC) to elections in six months.
The mourning has also distracted attention from a slew of corruption scandals affecting Zuma and his administration.
But memories of Mandela's single five-year term have reminded many just how distant Zuma's South Africa remains from the "Rainbow Nation" ideal of shared prosperity and social peace that Mandela proclaimed after his 1994 election.
South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet and despite two decades of affirmative action, the average white household still earns six times more than the average black one.
After Tuesday's event, Mandela's remains will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was sworn in as president in 1994.
He will be buried on Sunday, December 15 in Qunu, his ancestral home in the rolling, windswept hills of the Eastern Cape province, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg.
Only a few world leaders are due to attend the Qunu ceremony, a more intimate family affair.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Pascal Fletcher and Ed Cropley; Editing by Janet Lawrence)