JOHANNESBURG - Past and present Canadian leaders from across the political spectrum left partisan differences at home Monday as they arrived in South Africa to join a global gathering in memory of Nelson Mandela.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper smiled and waved to a small gathering of South African and Canadian diplomatic officials as he stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Air Force Base Waterkloof, north of Johannesburg.
Three of Harper's predecessors — Jean Chretien, Kim Campbell and Brian Mulroney — were also on board for the 18-hour flight, along with former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean.
They were joined by Alberta Premier Alison Redford; Nova Scotia's Stephen McNeil; Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski; the Northwest Territories' Bob McLeod; NDP Leader Tom Mulcair; and AFN national Chief Shawn Atleo, plus several MPs and a senator.
"He had a wonderful sense of humour and the most magnificent smile," Mulroney said as he fondly recalled many private meetings with Mandela.
In the 1980s, Mulroney made Canada a key player in the struggle against the apartheid regime that had imprisoned Mandela for 27 years.
Chretien followed up years later when his Liberal government made Mandela an honorary Canadian citizen, a symbol of Canada's respect for the man that still holds today.
"I want to pay homage to an incredible man," Chretien said in advance of the memorial.
"He was a great example for democracy."
As the Canadian delegation made its way into the city, crews were still constructing the stage that will form the centre of what is by all accounts to be a massive memorial on Tuesday.
The frantic preparations began shortly after Mandela died last Thursday at age 95, marking the end of an era for both South Africa and the African continent.
The Canadian delegation is visiting a country that is at once suffering the pain of losing a leader who was beloved around the world while also swelling with the pride of having had him as president.
Final arrangements for Tuesday's gathering of world leaders were still coming together late Monday as South Africa dealt with the sudden international outpouring of respect for Mandela.
The service is to be held in a soccer stadium in Soweto, where Mandela made his last public appearance during the 2010 World Cup.
Former prime minister Joe Clark, who was Mulroney's foreign minister when his government pushed South Africa to free Mandela, was already in South Africa and slated to join the delegation at the memorial.
Following Tuesday's events in Johannesburg, the delegation will join a procession Wednesday in Pretoria, where Mandela's body lies in state.
A state funeral will be held Sunday.