JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - World leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba's Raul Castro joined thousands of South Africans to honor Nelson Mandela on Tuesday in a memorial that will celebrate his gift for bringing enemies together across political and racial divides.
Obama's plane, carrying the U.S. leader and former president George W. Bush and their wives Michelle and Laura, touched down at Waterkloof airport as singing, dancing South Africans made their way in rain to the Johannesburg soccer stadium where the homage to Mandela was to be held.
Obama and Castro, whose countries maintain an ideological enmity lasting more than 50 years, are among the designated orators at the Soccer City stadium where 23 years earlier Mandela - freshly freed from apartheid jail - was hailed by cheering supporters as the hope for a new South Africa.
Coinciding with U.N.-designated Human Rights Day, the memorial service for Mandela in the 95,000-seat Soccer City stadium is the centerpiece of a week of mourning for the globally admired statesman, who died on Thursday aged 95.
Despite the rain, the atmosphere inside the stadium was celebratory, with people dancing, blowing "vuvuzela" plastic horns and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle.
"I was here in 1990 when Mandela was freed and I am here again to say goodbye," said Beauty Pule, 51, one of the growing crowd in the stadium to pay her respects to Mandela.
"I am sure Mandela was proud of the South Africa he helped create. It's not perfect but no-one is perfect, and we have made great strides."
The memorial event was due to start at 1100 (4 a.m. ET). It will pay tribute to a life of imprisonment and political struggle that ended in triumph and consecrated Mandela as a global symbol of integrity and forgiveness.
The fact that the visiting leaders - more than 90 are expected - include some from nations still locked in antagonism, such as Cuba and the United States, adds resonance to the homage being held at the gigantic bowl-shaped stadium, the venue of the 2010 World Cup final.
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will both be there. Blair has called Mugabe a dictator who should have been removed from power. Mugabe has called Blair an imperialist and once told him to "go to hell".
Such antagonisms will be put on mute on Tuesday as the life of someone who put his faith in reconciliation into practice to unite a multi-racial nation is remembered.
"What he did in life, that's what he's doing in death. He's bringing people together from all walks of life, from the different sides of opinion, political belief, religion," Zelda la Grange, Mandela's former personal assistant, told Reuters.
South African officials had initially said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would also be there, raising the possibility of a first face-to-face meeting with Obama. But Rouhani's name was not on an official list of attendees.
A flock of celebrities are also expected, including U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey, singers Peter Gabriel and Bono, supermodel Naomi Campbell and entrepreneur Richard Branson.
While Tuesday's event will reflect Mandela's global stature, ordinary South Africans will also pack the stadium to hail their beloved "Tata Madiba". Madiba is Mandela's clan name and "Tata" is the Xhosa word for father.
Huge screens in three other soccer stadiums in Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city and commercial hub, will relay the memorial service, with others following from around the country.
A huge security operation will be in force, with private cars banned from the area around the Soccer City stadium and citizens being asked to travel there by public transport.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will also speak, and will hold Mandela's example up as a beacon of justice, equality and human rights to be followed to create a better world.
"The people of South Africa and the entire world have lost a hero. His legacy is profound, immortal and will continue to guide the work of the United Nations," Ban said in a tribute at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg on Monday.
SPOTLIGHT ON ZUMA
South African President Jacob Zuma will give the keynote address. He is hoping the wave of emotion triggered by Mandela's passing can buoy his African National Congress (ANC) government as it faces popular protests over persisting poverty, crime and unemployment six months ahead of elections.
The mourning for Mandela has distracted attention from corruption scandals affecting Zuma and his administration. But memories of the former president's five-year tenure up to 1999 have reminded many just how distant Zuma's South Africa still is from the "Rainbow Nation" ideal of shared prosperity and social peace that Mandela proclaimed after his 1994 election.
South Africa remains one of the most unequal societies on the planet.
Besides Obama, three former U.S. presidents - Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - will also be in Johannesburg.
Israel, which many South Africans criticise for arming the apartheid rulers who kept Mandela behind bars for 27 years, is sending neither its prime minister nor president, Israeli officials said.
Pope Francis will also not be there, sending an African cardinal in his place.
After Tuesday's event, Mandela's remains will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was sworn in as president in 1994.
He will then be buried on Sunday, December 15, in Qunu, his ancestral home in the rolling, windswept hills of the Eastern Cape province, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg.
Only a few world leaders are due to attend the Qunu ceremony, which is likely to be a more intimate family affair.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by)