SOWETO, South Africa — As the world pays tribute to Nelson Mandela, South Africa is furiously preparing for a celebration of a life like no other.
It may be the biggest memorial service the world has ever seen, with celebrities and world leaders, including US President Barack Obama and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, set to arrive in South Africa during the coming days of official events.
So far the celebrations of Mandela’s life have been impromptu, from dancing on Vilakazi Street in Soweto where the beloved former president lived as a young man, to the growing memorial of flowers outside his home in the Houghton neighborhood of Johannesburg.
Official commemorations will begin Sunday with a national day of prayer and reflection, followed by a special sitting of the two houses of parliament on Monday in honor of South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
In their first public statement since Mandela's death late Thursday, family members said the past few days have been difficult, "and it won't be pleasant for the days to come."
"We have lost a great man, a son of the soil, whose greatness in our family was in the simplicity of his nature in our midst," Lt. Gen. Temba Templeton Matanzima said on behalf of the Mandela family.
"He made time for all of us. That great Thembu son of the soil made time for kings and queens, the poor and rich, the great and small," Matanzima said.
On Tuesday, a public memorial service will be held at FNB Stadium in Soweto, the 95,000-seat arena shaped like an African cooking pot that hosted the first and final matches of the 2010 soccer World Cup.
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Government minister Collins Chabane said the Soweto stadium event will be open to members of the public, and will also be attended by “VIPs and VVIPs.”
Overflow events will be held in Johannesburg and around the country.
“This will give ordinary people and public leaders an opportunity to celebrate Madiba’s life collectively,” Chabane said in a briefing Saturday.
Mandela’s body will lie in state from Dec. 11 to 13 at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
Mourners have been invited to line the streets of Pretoria for the three days that Mandela’s cortege travels between 1 Military Hospital and the Union Buildings.
“As we speak today, President Mandela’s body is being prepared by the Military Health Service of the South African National Defense Force,” Chabane said.
However, access to the Union Buildings will be strictly controlled, with South Africans and international guests requiring official accreditation. Cameras and cell phones will not be allowed into the buildings, and mourners will be shuttled in from two other venues in Pretoria.
It is still unclear how the accreditation procedure for the Union Buildings will take place, and who will be allowed to view Mandela’s casket.
On Dec. 14, Mandela’s remains will be transported to the rural Eastern Cape from the Waterkloof air base in Pretoria, at which point the ruling African National Congress party will say a farewell to Mandela.
Once the body arrives in the Eastern Cape, a procession will take place from the city of Mthatha, where the nearest airport is located, to Qunu village where Thembu tribal leaders will perform a traditional ceremony.
Mandela will be buried at the family plot in Qunu, his boyhood village, on Dec. 15 in a state funeral.
The funeral will be organized by the South Africa’s defense forces, but will take into account cultural practices, Chabane said.
“We go into this period with grief and sadness but also with fortitude, continuity and hope in the future that Madiba wished this great country would enjoy,” Chabane said.
Among the international figures expected to arrive in South Africa for memorial services are former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as Bush's wife Laura and Prince Charles.
Celebrities who have had close relationships with Mandela, including Oprah Winfrey, are also expected to attend.
Zola Lengisi, 26, who lives in the Orlando East area of Soweto, said that he cried “for a long time” when he first heard the news that Mandela had died.
“But I can see the thoughts of sympathy that are pouring from all over the globe, and it is healing the wounds,” he said.
“It shows that he was not only our Tata, but the world’s Tata,” Lengisi said. “I feel good because people around the world are here to mourn with us.”