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'We Are Here ... To Tell Madiba That His Long Walk Is Over'


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In South Africa this morning, a song-filled memorial for Nelson Mandela. Here, the National Anthem.


MONTAGNE: Tens of thousands crowded into South Africa's national soccer stadium in Johannesburg in the pouring rain to pay tribute to the man who helped transform a nation - among them 100 world leaders. The Deputy President of the African National Congress, Cyril Ramaphosa, made the opening remarks, referring to Mandela by his clan name, Madiba.

CYRIL RAMAPHOSA: In many ways we are here today to tell Madiba that his long walk is over; that he can finally rest; that he can enjoy the view of our beautiful country of South Africa.

MONTAGNE: ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa.

Our correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, is in the stadium where the memorial service is underway. Good morning.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Greetings, greetings from FNB Stadium. Despite the rain, I have to tell you, Renee, South Africans have come out in the tens of thousands. They've got their umbrellas out. It's a sea of colorful umbrellas. You talked about songs. Behind me, Sibongile Khumalo, one of South Africa's best known singers, is belting it out. I mean she has an extraordinary voice. And this has been all about celebrating Nelson Mandela. South Africans have been dancing, singing, swaying to mournful tunes, to joyous tunes, to soulful tunes.

I got to tell you though, just before I came on air, they showed us the Clintons - Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, and there was a huge cheer for them, as there was from the Obamas when they came up on the screen. South Africans are saying thank you, thank you to those who supported them during the struggle against apartheid. Thank you for them, to those who supported Nelson Mandela. And they're doing it South African style - chanting, singing and being joyous in this thanksgiving to the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

MONTAGNE: All right. And I don't want to dwell on this, but apparently there was a brief moment where the current president, Jacob Zuma, was not cheered.

QUIST-ARCTON: There were huge cheers for Jacob Zuma. And then we have one section, all in red, they're called the Economic Freedom Fighters - a breakaway from the governing ANC Party. And it is definitely the supporters of Julius Malema, who was known as the bad boy of the ANC because - before he was thrown out. They are the ones who were clearly booing Jacob Zuma.

But there have been lots of cheers for him and for the former president, Thabo Mbeki; of course for the Mandela family, for his ex-wife and the person, people - the person many South Africans consider the mother of the nation, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and for Nelson Mandela's widow, Graca Machel.

MONTAGNE: Well, we've already seen some of Mandela's family speak. It was quite sweet. A couple of his grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.

QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed, and it was lovely what they had to say. You know, everything is a tribute to this man who always said: I didn't do it on my own, you mustn't think that it is just Mandela. Of course he became the symbol of the struggle against apartheid. But there were so many others: Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu.

And of course the women who were Liberation Strugglists, as they call them, in their own right: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who kept the vision of Nelson Mandela alive for the 27 years he was imprisoned; Albertina Sisulu - the late Albertina Sisulu; and the other women who were not just wives. They were fighting the struggle whilst their husbands were incarcerated on Robben Island.

MONTAGNE: Well, we just have a few seconds here. But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon just spoke. President Obama is due to speak, right, just moments from now?

QUIST-ARCTON: President Obama, literally in about 10 minutes; Ban Ki-moon got a huge cheer from the crowd here. South Africans are really thanking everybody around the world who have supported them, and who is here today to pay homage and tribute to Nelson Mandela. It's quite remarkable.

MONTAGNE: Ofeibea, thanks. And we'll be talking to you later in the show.

That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton at Nelson Mandela's memorial. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.