Johannesburg: President Pranab Mukherjee arrived here on Tuesday to attend a memorial service in honour of South Africa's anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, whose death triggered an unprecedented outpour of rich tributes worldwide.
Mukherjee will join the heads of governments and states from more than 53 countries, including US President Barack Obama, in the two-hour long memorial service to be held at a 95,000-seat FNB Stadium, where Mandela made his last major public appearance during the 2010 football World Cup.
Mandela, 95, who had been suffering from a recurring lung infection and a prolonged spell of ill-health, died on December 5. President Mukherjee is accompanied by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj, Union Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, CPI-M leader Sitaram Yechury and BSP leader Satish Mishra, reflecting the high-esteem Mandela held across the entire political spectrum in India.
He is one of only six heads of state who will address the crowd at the memorial service. He will join Obama, Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff, Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia and Raul Castro of Cuba as well as Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao on the podium to address the crowd.
Mukherjee summed up the mood when he said shortly before leaving for Johannesburg that his visit to South Africa "reflects the high degree of love and respect which Dr Mandela commanded in India."
"My delegation and I hope to convey to the government and people of South Africa the intense grief and personal loss that we in India feel over the sad demise of the great soul - our beloved 'Madiba'," he said.
"His life was a living example of human strength and courage in the face of brute force and gross injustice. "He was the last of the giants who led the world's struggles against the colonialism and his struggle held special significance for us as we saw in him a reflection of our own prolonged anti-colonial struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi," he said.
After Tuesday's memorial service, Mandela's remains will lie in state for three days at the government buildings in Pretoria, the same where he was sworn in as president in 1994. He will be buried on Sunday in Qunu, 450 miles south of Johannesburg, at an event only a few world leaders are expected to attend.
Scores of other foreign dignitaries have already arrived in the country for the memorial service. There has been an "unprecedented interest" to attend the revered statesman's funeral, South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told a news conference here.
In a tribute to Mandela soon after his death, Mukherje had said in an article that "perhaps no other late 20th century figure defines a nation and a cause quite as profoundly as him."
Outlining India's close association with Mandela, who often acknowledged Mahatma Gandhi's influence on his thought process, Mukherjee said Madiba was a "symbol of courage for countless struggles all over the world, against colonialism and racial discrimination."
He said India was in the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement and wad the first country to sever trade relations and impose a complete embargo (diplomatic, commercial, culture and sports) on South Africa for apartheid.
India was also the first to bring up the issue of apartheid on the agenda of the United Nations and was influential in the imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa, he said.
Soon after his release from prison after 27 years, Mandela travelled to India in October 1990 in Delhi and Kolkata where he was given an unprecedented public reception and conferred with the highest civilian award 'Bharat Ratna'.
As the first president of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela had visited India twice in 1995 and 1997. Recalling several opportunities to interact closely with Mandela during the Commonwealth summit in New Zealand in 1995, Mukherjee said: "Madiba dreamed of a better world for all humanity and, we in India dreamed with him."
Next: Mandela funeral brings foreign rivals together
Mandela funeral brings foreign rivals together
Johannesburg: The presidents of the United States and Cuba will share a rare joint stage tomorrow as world leaders shed historic rivalries to pay tribute at the funeral of South African freedom icon Nelson Mandela.
Barack Obama and Raul Castro will both offer eulogies for Mandela at a sweeping memorial service to be held at the Soweto stadium that hosted the 2010 World Cup final. They are among more than 90 heads of state and government scheduled to attend an extended state funeral that will culminate in Mandela's burial on Sunday in the rural village of Qunu where he spent his early childhood....