Mandela memorial
Mourners sing as they stay out of the rain in the hallways of the FNB Stadium as they wait for the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela in Soweto , December 10, 2013. Photo by AP
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JOHANNESBURG - U.S. President Barack Obama hailed Nelson Mandela as a "giant of justice" on Tuesday but said too many leaders in the world claimed solidarity with his struggle for freedom "but do not tolerate dissent from their own people."

Obama, speaking at a memorial in Johannesburg for Mandela, made the comment in front of an audience of leaders that included Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, Cuban President Raul Castro and Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe.

On his way to the podium, Obama shook the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro, an unprecedented gesture between the leaders of two nations which have been at loggerheads for more than half a century. 

Tens of thousands of South Africans gathered in the rain to honor Mandela at a massive memorial service that drew some 100 heads of state and other luminaries.

An hour before the ceremony, the FNB Stadium in the Johannesburg township of Soweto was still far from full, but the atmosphere was tumultuous. At 6 A.M., when we arrived, thousands of South Africans – white and black – were already pouring out of trains, singing and dancing.

There is a sense here of an international historic event, and an unprecedented one. Everyone is here; over 90 heads of state, from Castro to Obama – and while I write these lines, British premier David Cameron is standing nearby.

This is a memorial like no other, and as often happens in soccer stadiums – and in Africa – the bleachers shake with song and dance. I even heard the slogan "Free Palestine."

It would have been difficult to imagine 20 years ago that this is what the farewell ceremony to prisoner Nelson Mandela would look like. Indeed, it is unlikely such a ceremony has ever taken place. Even the pesky, continuous rain can't dampen this extraordinary African passion.

For a moment, the whole world is looking at Africa – but just for a moment. All of a sudden, the world is paying its respects to an African hero – but this too, is but a fleeting moment.

Besides Obama, eulogies are to be delivered by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and Cuba's Castro.
Other speakers include the presidents of Brazil, Namibia and India, as well as tributes from Mandela's grandchildren. South African President Jacob Zuma will give the keynote address.

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The rain falls, the stadium fills, and the ceremony begins, broadcast on screens in other stadiums around the country. South Africa is holding its breath, and the world is paying its respects – more than it has for any other historical figure.

Reuters contributed to the report.