Crowds in Johannesburg stadium for Mandela memorial

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(Reuters) - World leaders from U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba's Raul Castro joined thousands of South Africans to honor Nelson Mandela on Tuesday in a memorial that will celebrate his gift for bringing enemies together across political and racial divides.

Obama's plane, carrying the U.S. leader and former president George W. Bush and their wives Michelle and Laura, touched down at Waterkloof airport as singing, dancing South Africans made their way in rain to the Johannesburg soccer stadium where the homage to Mandela was to be held.

Obama and Castro, whose countries maintain an ideological enmity lasting more than 50 years, are among the designated orators at the Soccer City stadium where 23 years earlier Mandela - freshly freed from apartheid jail - was hailed by cheering supporters as the hope for a new South Africa.

Coinciding with U.N.-designated Human Rights Day, the memorial service for Mandela in the 95,000-seat Soccer City stadium is the centerpiece of a week of mourning for the globally admired statesman, who died on Thursday aged 95.

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

"I was here in 1990 when Mandela was freed and I am here again to say goodbye," said Beauty Pule, 51, one of the growing crowd in the stadium to pay her respects to Mandela.

"I am sure Mandela was proud of the South Africa he helped create. It's not perfect but no-one is perfect, and we have made great strides."

The memorial event was due to start at 1100 (4 a.m. ET). It will pay tribute to a life of imprisonment and political struggle that ended in triumph and consecrated Mandela as a global symbol of integrity and forgiveness.

The fact that the visiting leaders - more than 90 are expected - include some from nations still locked in antagonism, such as Cuba and the United States, adds resonance to the homage being held at the gigantic bowl-shaped stadium, the venue of the 2010 World Cup final.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair will both be there. Blair has called Mugabe a dictator who should have been removed from power. Mugabe has called Blair an imperialist and once told him to "go to hell".

Such antagonisms will be put on mute on Tuesday as the life of someone who put his faith in reconciliation into practice to unite a multi-racial nation is remembered.

"What he did in life, that's what he's doing in death. He's bringing people together from all walks of life, from the different sides of opinion, political belief, religion," Zelda la Grange, Mandela's former personal assistant, told Reuters.

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