DAVID Cameron paid tribute to the spirit of forgiveness shown by Nelson Mandela as he joined world leaders and thousands of South Africans at a massive memorial service for the anti-apartheid hero.
Mr Cameron said Mr Mandela set an example to politicians across the world, not only in the “incredible stand he took” but in the way he treated people once he was released from prison.
He highlighted the moment Mr Mandela appeared with captain of the Springboks Francois Pienaar at the Rugby World Cup final in South Africa in 1995.
Mr Cameron told BBC Breakfast: “I will never forget the sight of him with the captain of the Springboks out in the middle of that rugby pitch, that moment is seared in all our memories.
“And the way that he had treated people who had done such harm to people. I think it was the forgiveness that set an example that so few politicians are able to follow. I think those sort of lessons are what we need to learn and take away with us.”
More than 80,000 people in the stadium will hear speeches from statesmen including US president Barack Obama, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and South African president Jacob Zuma, who will give the keynote address.
The service at the World Cup stadium in Johannesburg, which will be addressed by Mr Obama and the current South African president, Jacob Zuma, will also be attended by the Prince of Wales on behalf of the Queen.
In a sign of Mr Mandela’s wider global and popular appeal, the service will be attended by a range of celebrity figures. They include the Scottish singer Annie Lennox, along with Irish U2 frontman Bono, US chat show host and actress Oprah Winfrey, the Spice Girls, Sir Richard Branson and singer Peter Gabriel.
The memorial service will take place just outside the township of Soweto, at the FNB stadium, the World Cup venue where Mr Mandela made his final public appearance in 2010.
However, the service has been hit by controversy, with the Dalai Lama, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, being prevented by the South African authorities from attending after being twice turned down for an entry visa.
A government spokesman did not say why the Buddhist spiritual leader would be missing the memorial service in Johannesburg and the funeral in Mr Mandela’s hometown of Qunu, only that “logistically, it’s impossible at this time”.
After pressure from China, South Africa also blocked the Dalai Lama from attending a Nobel laureates’ peace conference in 2009.
It was revealed yesterday that Mr Obama and his predecessor, Mr Bush, will fly together to South Africa on Air Force One. Former US presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter will also be at the service.
“I think it’s a unique experience and I think they [the presidents] are all remembering their different interactions with Nelson Mandela and his family,” said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser aboard Air Force One.
A spokesman for the First Minister confirmed Alex Salmond would not attend the service, having sent a letter of condolence to Mr Zuma over the weekend. Mr Salmond’s spokesman said he would instead “be leading a motion of condolence at Scottish Parliament”.
Also absent will be representatives from Glasgow City Council, one of the first to award Mr Mandela the freedom of the city in the dark days of his struggle against apartheid.
Throughout yesterday, leaders from across the globe began to arrive in South Africa for the memorial service. Among almost 100 world leaders expected to attend are French president François Hollande; Iranian president Hassan Rouhani; Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president; German chancellor Angela Merkel; Chinese president Ji Xinping; and Mahinda Rajapaksa, president of Sri Lanka, under fire over human rights abuses.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has said he is to attend the service along with his predecessor Kofi Annan, as well as Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Union Council.
With so many world leaders and famous figures attending, South Africa’s government last night attempted to quell fears about security at the event, which is expected to attract tens of thousands more than the stadium can hold.
“All the events and those who attend them are safe,” said minister Collins Chabane.
Police promised “thousands” of officers would secure the stadium, though security appeared lax yesterday, and a security company owner used his car as a mobile office to hire guards.
As a prelude to the stadium event, Mr Ban and retired archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at an event at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.
“What a fantastic gift God gave to us in this Mandela, who quickly became an icon, a global icon of forgiveness, of generosity of spirit,” Mr Tutu said.
“He really was like a magician with a magic wand, turning us into this glorious, multi-coloured rainbow people.”
The official memorial service is due to take place today at the FNB stadium in Johannesburg, at 11am South African time (9am GMT).
• Gates will open at 6am for people who want to be among the 80,000 allowed into the stadium.
• Large TV screens are to be erected outside.
• US president Barack Obama, the Cuban president and Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, will all address the service.
• The programme also include tributes by other heads of state and representatives of international and regional organisations.
• The venue has been chosen because it was where Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance, in 2010.