World leaders and joyous, singing South Africans gathered Tuesday to honour Nelson Mandela at a Soweto soccer stadium that was half full, amid cold, driving rain.
The crowds twice booed South African President Jacob Zuma, who was to give the keynote address at the service, which started an hour late.
Crowds converged on FNB Stadium in Soweto, the Johannesburg township that was a stronghold of support for the anti-apartheid struggle that Mandela embodied as a prisoner of white rule for 27 years and then during a peril-fraught transition to the all-race elections that made him president.
Steady rain kept many people away. Shortly before the start of the ceremony, the 95,000-capacity stadium was about 50 per cent full. The ceremony began at noon local time with the singing of the national anthem.
The mood, though, 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 political 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.''
Workers were still welding at a VIP area as the first spectators arrived amid an enormous logistical challenge of organizing the memorial for Mandela, who died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95.
United States President Barack Obama landed in South Africa early Tuesday. Besides Obama, eulogies were to be delivered by U.N. chief Ban, Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao and Cuban President Raul Castro.
Other speakers include the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India, as well as tributes from Mandela's grandchildren.
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were at the stadium. So were actress Charlize Theron, model Naomi Campbell and singer Bono and Oprah Winfrey.
The sounds of horns and cheering filled the stadium ahead of the ceremony. The rain, seen as a blessing among South Africa's majority black population, enthused the crowd.
``In our culture the rain is a blessing,'' said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. ``Only great, great people are memorialized with it. Rain is life. This is perfect weather for us on this occasion.''