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Obama praises 'Giant of History' at packed Mandela memorial

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(CNN/KYTX) - Presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and royals joined tens of thousands of South Africans to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, in a memorial service celebrating a man seen as a global symbol of reconciliation.

In what has been billed as one of the largest gatherings of global leaders in recent history, world leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba's Raul Castro gathered alongside street sweepers, actors and religious figures to pay tribute to the revered statesman who died last Thursday, aged 95.

Despite the pouring rain, the atmosphere inside Johannesburg 's FNB stadium was celebratory, with people dancing, blowing vuvuzela plastic horns and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle.

Many carried banners honoring "Madiba," Mandela's traditional clan name, or his picture. Others were draped in materials covered with his face or the green, yellow, black, red and blue colors of the South African flag.

Some had skipped work and lined up for hours to secure seats so that they could pay their respects at the stadium where Mandela delivered his first major speech after his release from 27 years in prison.

The four-hour service, coinciding with U.N. Human Rights Day, is the centerpiece of a week of mourning and was expected to bring much of South Africa to a stop.

It began with the national anthem before South Africa's presidents -- past and present -- were introduced. There was a loud cheer from the crowd for F.W. de Klerk, the last leader of white South Africa, who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for helping to end apartheid.

The joyous cries died down as speeches from Mandela's family and friends, as well as a fellow Robben Island prison inmate, began. Anguished faces listened quietly as a sorrowful chant to "Tata Madiba" filled the air. "Tata" means "father" in Mandela's Xhosa tribe.

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