President Obama was among dozens of world leaders to eulogize Nelson Mandela

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JOHANNESBURG - President Obama eulogized Nelson Mandela as "the last great liberator of the 20th Century'' as tens of thousands of South Africans, joyously cheering and singing despite a cold rain, mourned the passing and celebrated the life of the father of their modern nation.

Obama, speaking in an open soccer stadium and before a gathering of global leaders, likened Mandela to historic giants of the past century, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and said that like them Mandela willingly "suffered the consequences of his actions'' in standing up to powerful oppressors.

"

,'' said Obama, who has long regarded Mandela as an inspiration.

"He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books but in our own lives as well,'' the president said.

Before addressing the large but not full stadium crowd, Obama paused to shake hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, whose nation has long been at odds with the United States. He also shook hands with F.W. de Klerk, the last president of South Africa under the minority white apartheid government who shared in the Nobel Prize with Mandela.

Extreme levels of security were in place at FNB Stadium on the edge of the black township of Sowet for the memorial ceremony for the nation's first black president, Nobel Prize winner and leader of his nation's struggle to establish democracy.

"We are saying goodbye today to the person who died for us," said Rebecca Brown, 41. "We have to pay our last respects to Tata (father) and say thanks for everything. We will take it from here."

The ceremony began an hour late in a cold, driving rain, the stadium not full but thousands still streaming in.

Planners anticipated overflow crowds and set up other locations around the city where people could watch the memorial on large video screens. The government opened turnstiles to provide free subway and commuter trains to the memorial and banned traffic and parking near the stadium.

LIVE FROM SOUTH AFRICA: Remembering the life of Nelson Mandela

Rail workers in yellow jackets directed crowds onto trains, which were filled with South Africans eager to celebrate the life of Madiba, as they know him, as well as mourn his passing at age 95 last Thursday.

They were celebrating their own liberation too, more than two decades after the fall of the white minority apartheid regime.

In a bit of historical coincidence, Mandela's memorial came on the date when 20 years earlier he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, along with de Klerk, for their leadership in bringing a peaceful transition to democracy in the majority black nation.

Inside the wet stadium, the crowd erupted in cheers at the arrival of Mandela's widow Graca Machel. Celebreties such as Bono of the band U2 made quieter arrivals. Seated near Machel was Mandela's ex-wife Winnie.

The nation's president, Jacob Zuma, a featured speaker, drew some boos from the crowd.

Arriving train passengers sang liberation songs from the anti-apartheid struggles of the 1980s, 1970s and earlier, which today are taught in South African schools. The crowds cheered and stomped feet so vigorously the rail cars bounced.

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