The leaders, who took turns to address a large gathering at the memorial of the global icon at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, variously extolled his virtues of sacrifice, love for humanity, spirit of forgiveness and resilience.
They associated themselves with the values of the anti-apartheid icon.
Host President Zuma, who gave the keynote address, described the late Mandela as “one of a kind… a fearless freedom fighter who refused to allow the brutality of the apartheid state to stand in way of the struggle for the liberation of his people”.
He said while Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) was no more, he had left behind a nation that loved him dearly and a continent that was proud to call him an African.
“Under his leadership, the democratically-elected government focused on building a democratic society based on non-racialism and non-sexism,” President Zuma said, adding that Mandela never wanted to be viewed as a messiah or a saint.
The long speech ended with a commitment of “continuing to build a country free of hunger, homelessness and inequality”.
President Barrack Obama attended the memorial together with his wife, Michelle, former US Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and a former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.
In a 20-minute eulogy, President Obama compared Mandela to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Abraham Lincoln and America’s founding fathers in various aspects of his life and thanked South Africans for sharing Mandela with the rest of the world.
“To Graça Machel and the Mandela family; to President Zuma and members of the government; to heads of state and government, past and present; distinguished guests — it is a singular honour to be with you today, to celebrate a life unlike any other,” he said.
President Obama said Mandela was a “giant of history” and further described him as the last great liberator of the 20th century.
He said Mandela had taught the world the power of action and the power of ideas and that it had taken a man like Mandela to free not only the prisoner but also the jailer.
“We will never see the likes of Mandela again. While I will always fall short of Madiba, he makes me want to be a better man,” Mr Obama said.
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, in his tribute, said, “South Africa has lost a hero, we have lost a father and the world has lost a beloved friend and mentor.”
He said Mandela taught by example, sacrificed so much and was willing to give up everything for freedom, equality and justice, stressing that his compassion stood out most.
Mr Ban recalled that the South African elections of 1994 marked a “triumph for the ideals of the United Nations” and a “victory for everyone who has faced the poison of prejudice”.
He said there was no better testament to his influence and fight for equality “than this stadium today, we are here”.
Speaking through a translator, the President of Cuba, Raul Castro Ruz, appealed for a global Mandela-inspired spirit of unity.
“Let us pay tribute to Mandela — the ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle, to freedom and justice, a prophet of unity, peace and reconciliation,” he said.
President Castro said Mandela’s life had taught the world that only the concerted effort of all nations would empower humanity to respond to the enormous challenges that threatened its very existence.
China and Brazil
Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao, Brazilian President Dilma Roussef, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee also made speeches before a keynote address by South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma.
Mr Li described Mr Mandela as the “pride of the African people”, adding that he dedicated his entire life to the development and progress of the African continent.
Speaking through a translator, Brazilian President Roussef said Mandela was a source of inspiration for similar struggles in Brazil and across South America.
His fight, she said, reached way beyond his nation’s borders and inspired young men and women to fight for independence and social justice.