Nelson Mandela's Memorial Might Be the Biggest State Gathering Ever

A veritable who's who of the world's political leaders will attend Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa on Tuesday, including as many as 70 current heads of state.

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A veritable who's who of the world's political leaders will attend Nelson Mandela's memorial in South Africa on Tuesday, including as many as 70 current heads of state, and four U.S. presidents. To accommodate all of those distinguished mourners, the ceremony will take place in Johannesburg's 95,000-seat FNB Stadium, with a massive security force on hand to watch over the dignitaries. Even that space won't be enough to hold everyone, though, so South Africa's government is enlisting three separate overflow stadiums, which will each broadcast video of the ceremony live.

The full guest list includes a wide range of bold face name, from President Barack Obama to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to U2's Bono. All that star power and the "unprecedented" scale of the event, as Mandela's former security head Rory Steyn told CBS News, is making South Africa serious about security concerns. The country is deploying 11,000 troops to patrol the ceremony, and even then aren't sure that will be enough. 

"We simply haven't had this scale of VIP arrival before," Steyn said, "How do you test that?  How do you prepare for the scale of invasion that we are about to experience?" Not even the World Cup in 2010 prepared South Africa for the ceremony's expected size, and they had several years of lead time for that.

The huge spectrum of Mandela's admirers will also make for some potentially interesting (or awkward) interactions among leaders who are generally not on speaking term. President Obama's will give an address that will then be followed by speeches by Brazil's President Dilma Rouseff (who snubbed Washington earlier this year); the Vice President of China, Li Yuanchao; and finally Raul Castro, brother of Fidel and the current ruler of Cuba.

Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, will deliver the keynote speech.

One notable leader missing from the extensive list is Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who decided not to attend at the last minute, citing cost concerns. (Israeli President Shimon Peres will not attend in his place, either, as he is fighting a bout with the flu.) The move will save his nation an estimated $1.9 million, but it's being seen as a slight in the already tense Israel-South Africa relationship,  Israel's Haaretz writes. Mandela sympathized with the Palestinian cause for state freedom as he said back in 1997: "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

Haaretz's Bardley Burston was harsh in his criticism of Netanyahu's decision not to honor Mandela, no matter their differences:

My Israel, which so craves and demands legitimacy and recognition as a full partner in the community of nations, does not consider a man like Nelson Mandela, or a nation like South Africa, or the sentiment of an entire world, worth the price of a plane flight. ...

With a wink and a nod to the settler right, the academic rabid right, and the KKK-esque far right, Netanyahu is sending an even stronger message: This is where I stand on this Palestinian-lover, Mandela. And this is where I stand on his Palestinian-lover heirs.

Perhaps Netanyahu has bristled at comparisons between the Israeli treatment of Palestinians and the old apartheid regime of the divided South Africa. Or perhaps he's legitimately worried about security and cost. But the wrath with which Netanyahu's decision is being met, suggests that the price of being seen to be disrespectful to such a beloved figure is more expensive than the cost of any plane ticket.

Along with the head of state, the VIPs reported (or rumored) to be in attendance includes other heavyweights, such as former Presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush, and their First Ladies, the U.N. Secretary General, Prince Charles, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, and Naomi Campbell. Ted Cruz is also going as part of a sizeable U.S. Congressional delegation.

The memorial will be held on Tuesday, beginning at 11:00 a.m. local time (4:00 a.m. ET), but Mandela's burial will take place Sunday in his home town of Qunu.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.