AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Tens of thousands of South Africans and dozens of world leaders and dignitaries came to a rainy soccer stadium in Soweto, South Africa today to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela. President Obama took the stand to laud him as the last great liberator of the 20th century. People danced, sang and cheered to mark this occasion. NPR's Gregory Warner was in the bleachers and sent this report.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Well, that is, as you can hear, an impromptu choir that's formed in the rain on the floor here of the FNB soccer stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa where tens of thousands of people are saying goodbye to their beloved leader, Nelson Mandela. The mood here is, as you can hear, as it's been really for the past five days, is celebratory. People say they're celebrating a man who gave 95 years to his country. Hello, hi.
So I went to talk to some of the people here. The first person I met was Mandisa Ndolo. She's here with her mother and daughter and two umbrellas between them.
MANDISA NDOLO: We are here to pay our last respects to the most lovable person, to Tata.
WARNER: How does it feel to pay your respects here in a soccer stadium with thousands and thousands of people?
NDOLO: I think this is a perfect setting. Even when he was released from prison, this is one of his first stop.
WARNER: This soccer stadium in Soweto was where she first laid eyes on Mandela 23 years ago. This was days after his release from prison, Mandela's first speech in Johannesburg. And Mandisa Ndolo was just 20 years old, which means that for her entire life, Nelson Mandela was a prisoner, an invisible legend. Now he's the man that South Africans call Tata, father.
NDOLO: And what makes it different today is because there's a lot of young people who were born during that time when Tata was released from prison. So it's the first time they - getting the first feel of how is it to celebrate with a great man.
WARNER: Like, perhaps, this young lady over here.
NDOLO: Yes. She was not even born. She was born in '97.
WARNER: Her daughter, Nell, also grew up with Mandela as a mostly invisible icon. Nell was only seven when Mandela retired from public life.
NDOLO: Even though we never really had him, we were babies when he was the president, so now is really our time to say thank you for all that you've done.
WARNER: The rain starts coming down even harder. A few seat rows away I meet Allistair Smith and Marise Mpombo who are standing together under their umbrellas, laughing like old friends.
ALLISTAIR SMITH: We just met.
WARNER: Oh, you just met. This is the kind of event where you just make old friends, you know?
SMITH: Like, yeah, of course.
MARISE MPOMBO: Yeah, yeah.
WARNER: Why is that?
SMITH: It's one of those moments of history. And we're very impressed with South Africa that we've seen so much history in such a short periods of time. And we've experienced so much because of this man, this very great leader.
WARNER: And if that great leader could suffer prison for 27 years, Allistair Smith could stand to be wet for a few hours.
SMITH: I mean, come on, you know?
SMITH: It's a blessing. When there's a funeral, when you say goodbye to someone, and it rains, it's a purest sign. It's meant to rain. The heavens are opening for Mandela today.
WARNER: Nelson Mandela's body will lie in state in Pretoria until Friday. He'll be buried on Sunday in a family plot in the home village of Qunu. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Soweto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.