Obama, Bush, Clinton to pay last respects to Mandela

Pretoria/Washington, Dec 7 (IANS) US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle will travel to South Africa next week to pay their last respects to anti-apartheid icon and South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela.

They will be joined by former US president George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush and former president Bill Clinton and his wife, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

According to the White House, the Americans will "pay their respects to the memory of Nelson Mandela and participate in memorial events" honouring the passing of the anti-apartheid leader.

Earlier, Obama paid tributes to Mandela saying: "They're grieving the loss of a man, a moral giant who embodied dignity, courage and hope, and sought to bring about justice not only in South Africa, but I think to inspire millions around the world."

As the first black president in US history, Obama could never meet Mandela face-to-face. When he visited South Africa in June, the anti-apartheid icon was hospitalised with a recurring lung infection.

Obama and his family visited the jail cell on Robben Island where Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years in captivity during South Africa's apartheid era.

Meanwhile, crowds gathered outside Mandela's old home in Soweto, Johannesburg, to celebrate his life through song and dance.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation's Centre of Memory has opened its doors to allow the public to reflect on the life and times of Mandela, South Africa's government news agency SA News reported.

The centre will be open till Dec 9 as a place for people to gather in unity, chief executive of the foundation Sello Hatang said.

"With open arms, we welcome you into our home to pay your respects and share your tributes and contributions to recognising this great statesman," Hatang said.

There will be a joint sitting Monday of the two houses of parliament, the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces, to commemorate Mandela's death.

The sitting will offer MPs time to reflect on Mandela's life.

Mandela, who was the first black president of South Africa (1994 to 1999), died Thursday at his home in Johannesburg at the age of 95.

South African President Jacob Zuma said the late statesman will be laid to rest at his home in Qunu in the southern province of Eastern Cape. The national mourning will last for 10 days before the funeral.

Mandela's body will be kept Dec 11-13 at the Union Buildings in the administrative capital of Pretoria, he said.

During the national mourning, Dec 8 has been declared a day of prayer and reflection and Dec 10 would be the day for the official memorial service in Johannesburg.