U.S. President Barack Obama told tens of thousands of people gathered in a South African soccer stadium today that Nelson Mandela was "the last great liberator of the 20th century," a tribute to the man who became a global symbol of reconciliation.

"We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," Obama said during a 20-minute speech at FNB stadium in Soweto, a suburb of Johannesburg where more than 100 world leaders assembled for a memorial honouring the anti-apartheid leader, who died last Thursday at the age of 95.

"He makes me want to be a better man. He speaks to what's best inside of us. After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we've returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength, let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves." 

Obama called Mandela "a giant of history."

"In the arc of his life, we see a man who earned his place in history through struggle and shrewdness; through persistence and faith," Obama said as rain poured down on those in attendance.

The speech received a standing ovation.

Harper, 4 ex-PMs in attendance

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and four former Canadian prime ministers attended the ceremony, which was held in the township that was the stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid movement that Mandela embodied — as an activist, a prisoner of the white apartheid regime for 27 years and as the country's first black president.

Mandela's legacy of reconciliation seemed to be present at the memorial, as Obama shook the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro on his way to the podium, underscoring a recent warming of relations between their two countries, which do not have formal diplomatic relations.

South African President Jacob Zuma called Mandela the "father and hero" of South Africa. He announced that the Union Buildings amphitheatre in the capital, Pretoria, where Mandela was sworn in as the country's first black president in 1994 has been renamed Nelson Mandela amphitheatre.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the crowd that Mandela "is at rest, his long walk complete."

"Mr. Mandela was more than one of the greatest pillars of our time," the UN chief said. "He was one of our greatest teachers. He taught by example. He sacrificed so much ... for freedom and equality, for democracy and justice.

Matlhogonolo Mothoagae, a marketing student who arrived hours before the gates to the stadium opened, said she would not have the life she has today if not for Mandela.

"He was jailed so we could have our freedom," she said.

Rohan Laird, the 54-year-old CEO of a health insurance company, said 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," Laird said. "I honestly don't think the world will see another leader like Nelson Mandela."

Logistical challenge

Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived, reflecting the enormous logistical challenge of organizing such a huge gathering.

Mandela cortege

A mourner waits for the Nelson Mandela cortege. (Ian Kalushner/CBC)

The rain and some transportation problems appeared to keep the crowds away. The 95,000-seat stadium was about half full when the event began at noon local time, an hour late, with the national anthem. At the crowd's peak, the stadium was about two-thirds full.

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

Rain sent those who arrived early into the stadium's covered upper deck, and many of the lower seats were empty.

CBC reporter Kim Brunhuber said from Pretoria that anyone looking for a flawless memorial would have been disappointed. An overflow stadium meant for those who couldn't get into the main venue only attracted a handful of people.

"If this wasn't the send-off that befitted the legacy of Nelson Mandela, maybe it was symbolic of the messy but earnest work in progress that is this country," he said.

The country still has a faltering education system and an uneven record on providing basic services, along with allegations of corruption and cronyism. The gulf remains wide between the wealthy white minority and millions of blacks mired in poverty. The unemployment rate is 25.2 per cent.

Celebratory stadium

Despite the weather and many speakers whom the crowd found uninspiring, the mood was still celebratory. 

"Africans are saying that when a great man falls, the rain is blessings," CBC reporter Susan Ormiston said from the stadium.

People blew on vuvuzelas, the plastic horn that was widely used during the World Cup soccer tournament held in South Africa in 2010.Others sang songs from the era of the decades-long struggle against the system of racial segregation.

"It is a moment of sadness celebrated by song and dance, which is what we South Africans do," said Xolisa Madywabe, CEO of a South African investment firm.

CBC reporters in the stadium said the speakers were difficult for the crowd to hear over the stadium sound system, but they let their feelings be known about various world leaders as they were shown on the giant screen. 

Obama and his wife, Michelle, were met with cheers, as was Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki. However, the crowd booed former U.S. president George W. Bush. Zuma, who gave the keynote address, was booed repeatedly by many of the stadium attendees, though the crowd quieted to listen when he gave his speech.

Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of corruption scandals plaguing his government, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, still remains the front-runner ahead of elections next year.

Clarkson regrets no Canadian speaker

Canada's official delegation arrived Monday morning. Harper, his wife, Laureen, and former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell and Joe Clark were at the memorial.

Other members of the Canadian delegation included:

  • Former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean.
  • Assembly of First Nations national chief Shawn Atleo.
  • Canada's high commissioner to South Africa, Gaston Barban, and his wife, Jane.

"We've been listening to the singing of tens of thousands who've gathered here," Atleo said from inside the stadium shortly before the memorial began. "It's a feeling of both sorrow and I think deep pride and the celebration of the life of an incredible man."

Mandela cortege

The cortege transporting Nelson Mandela's body is heading to Pretoria, South Africa where he will lie in state for three days. (Ian Kalushner/CBC)

Clarkson told CBC News it was unfortunate that Canada did not have a speaker at the memorial, noting that Mulroney and Clark both stood against apartheid when many conservatives did not, and that Mandela was made an honorary Canadian citizen during Chrétien's leadership.

"I feel that Canada is missing here, and I regret it enormously," she said.

Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, four provincial premiers and several MPs were also in attendance.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford worked for Mandela in the early 1990s when South Africa was in transition and developing a new constitution.

"He was a very tough taskmaster," Redford said as she watched the memorial. "He always had a sense of humour, and I think that's what kept him on track."

Raul Castro among speakers

Other speakers included Raul Castro and Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao, and the crowd included a mix of royalty, statesmen and celebrities.

French President ​François Hollande and his predecessor and rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, arrived together. Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, were at the stadium, and gave each other a long hug before the ceremonies began. Celebrities included actor Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and U2 singer Bono.

Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the day Mandela and South Africa's last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end apartheid.

Mandela said in his acceptance speech at the time: "We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born."

Mandela cortege

Nelson Mandela's body will lie in state for three days in Union buildings in Pretoria, South Africa. (Ian Kalushner/CBC)

The soccer stadium was also the spot where Mandela made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. After the memorial, his body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, once the seat of white power, before burial Sunday in his rural childhood village of Qunu in Eastern Cape province.

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press