Scores of heads of state and other foreign dignitaries are beginning to converge on South Africa as the final preparations for the national memorial service for Nelson Mandela are put in place.
More than 80,000 are expected to attend the gathering for the anti-apartheid hero at a stadium in the Soweto township where he made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 soccer World Cup.
The government said that 53 heads of state and government had already confirmed they would be attending the national memorial service and/or the state funeral for the country’s first black and democratically-elected president.
Thousands of South African police will be on duty at the ceremony – expected to last four hours – and will block access to the site if crowds become too large, officials said.
A joint taskforce of police, diplomats and intelligence service personnel already have been making plans and talking to the foreign delegations who are to attend the ceremony.
On Monday workers also installed bulletproof glass to protect the stage where foreign leaders, including President Barack Obama, will speak. Those attending include Mr Obama, David Cameron, Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, both of whom will as give speeches.
South African president Jacob Zuma will give the keynote address. Mr Mandela’s family and friends also will speak at the ceremony, which will include a sermon.
A spokesman for the South African Police Service, said “thousands” of officers will direct traffic, protect mourners and help the bodyguards of visiting dignitaries.
“We will be on hand to make sure people are able to grieve in a safe environment.”
“Whether we have 10 heads of state coming or 70 or 100, we do have the capacity and plans in place to facilitate their movement,” the spokesman said.
Roads for several square miles around the stadium will be closed, and people will have to walk or take public transport to the stadium. Nearby stadiums equipped with viewing screens also will be open to accommodate overflow crowds.
Government Minister Collins Chabane said organisers “can’t guess” how many people will attend or will try to enter the stadium. “Once we see that the numbers are becoming unmanageable ... access will be denied,” he said.
Mandela died last Thursday aged 95. After the stadium memorial today, his body will lie in state at the Union Buildings, the seat of government in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, from Wednesday to Friday. He will be buried Sunday in Qunu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s rural hometown in Eastern Cape Province.
The Dalai Lama will not be in South Africa, where he has twice been unable to obtain a visa. A spokesman did not say why the Buddhist leader is missing the memorial service and funeral. He said only that “logistically it’s impossible”.
South Africa blocked the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates’ peace conference in 2009, and stalled on a 2011 visa until the Tibetan leader withdrew the application. The Dalai Lama has lived in Dharamsala in India since fleeing from China in 1959.
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