Large Mandela memorial set for Tuesday in Johannesburg

Massive crowds expected at stadium on edge of Soweto; nation honors former leader at Sunday services

Mourners at the Houghton home of former South African President Nelson Mandela on Dec. 9, 2013, in Johannesburg.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

South Africans of all races flocked to houses of worship Sunday for a national day of prayer and reflection to honor Nelson Mandela, as a large contingent of foreign dignitaries, including royalty, began arriving in the country to pay their final respects to the liberation-struggle icon.

The South African government said Sunday that 53 heads of state and government as well as a broad range of eminent people confirmed that they would be attending a national memorial service and state funeral for the country's first black and democratically elected president.

Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, joined one of his grandsons, Mandla Mandela, and South African President Jacob Zuma in a prayer service in a Methodist church in Johannesburg.

"We felt it important that we should have a day where all of us as South Africans can come together and pray for our first democratic president and reflect on his legacy," Zuma said. "But it is also to pray for our nation ... to pray that we not forget some of the values he fought for."

Zuma said Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, had forgiven even those who kept him in prison for 27 years and that he opposed both white and black domination.

Official services honoring Mandela will begin on Tuesday with a major memorial planned at FNB Stadium on the edge of Johannesburg's Soweto township. Government minister Collins Chabane told journalists Saturday that he expects massive crowds far beyond the stadium's capacity of 95,000. He said overflow areas would be set up.

"We can't tell people not to come," he said.

He could not provide details about how crowds would get there, with all roads to the venue closed by police, or who would serve as a master of ceremonies.

In their first comments since Mandela's death, members of his family on Saturday issued a statement thanking South Africa and the wider world for their support. They said they had "lost a great man" — as they had when South Africa's former apartheid government imprisoned him for decades.

"The pillar of our family is gone, just as he was away during that 27 painful years of imprisonment, but in our hearts and souls he will always be with us," said the release, read by family spokesman Lt. Gen. Themba Templeton Matanzima.

"His spirit endures. As a family, we commit ourselves to uphold and be guided by the values he lived for and was prepared to die for," he said.

On Monday, South Africa's two houses of parliament will hold special sessions to pay tribute to Mandela.

Click here for Al Jazeera's coverage of Nelson Mandela's legacy.

Those planning the funeral include the former president's family, the federal government, the military and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) political party. Despite some earlier planning by authorities as Mandela grew frail and suffered bouts of hospitalization in recent years, many of the details remain up in the air.

It was unclear which ceremony world leaders will attend — Tuesday's stadium memorial or the planned funeral service Dec. 15 in Qunu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner's rural hometown in Eastern Cape Province. Chabane said South African officials briefed diplomats Saturday about the arrangements and would leave it to foreign governments to decide which event their leaders would attend.

President Barack Obama and two of his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have indicated they will attend. Many other world leaders are also expected.

Mandela's body will not be at the stadium event Tuesday, Chabane said. His body will rest in state Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa's seat of government.

Mourners will walk up the steps into the Union Building's amphitheater and file past Mandela's casket, Chabane said. Authorities blocked visitors from visiting the amphitheater Saturday. Chabane said he did not know whether casket would be open or closed.

Mandela's body will be held overnight between viewings at a military hospital on Pretoria's outskirts, Chabane said. He called on residents to line the streets to serve as an honor guard as Mandela's body passes twice each day.

ANC members will hold a ceremony on Dec. 14 at Waterkloof Air Force Base near Pretoria before Mandela's body is flown to Qunu from there, Chabane said.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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