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South African police prepare for Mandela ceremony

JOHANNESBURG — Workers busily constructed a stage Monday at the Soweto soccer stadium where world leaders will eulogize Nelson Mandela before tens of thousands of mourners, as police promised tight security.

Nearly 100 heads of state are expected to assemble at the 95,000-capacity FNB Stadium for the memorial Tuesday to the anti-apartheid icon. Mandela made his last public appearance at the same stadium for the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup, when the venue was called Soccer City.

"Thousands" of officers will direct traffic, protect mourners and help the bodyguards of visiting dignitaries, Lt. Gen. Solomon Makgale, a spokesman for the South African Police Service, said Monday.

"We will be on hand to make sure people are able to grieve in a safe environment," Makgale told The Associated Press.

Makgale said a joint taskforce of police, diplomats and intelligence service personnel already have been making plans and talking to the foreign delegations who plan to attend the ceremony.

Less than 20 hours before the event, ground crews cut the grass in front of the stadium. Workers inside welded scaffolding for a stage and installed bulletproof glass to protect foreign leaders, including United States President Barack Obama.

Others expected to attend are British Prime Minister David Cameron, Brazilian leader Dilma Rousseff and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Foreign dignitaries began arriving Sunday.

"Whether we have 10 heads of state coming or 70 or 100, we do have the capacity and plans in place to facilitate their movement," Makgale said.

Though security remains a concern, an AP reporter walked unsearched into the stadium Monday by showing only a national press card issued in Europe. It took about three minutes before a security officer asked journalists to leave the stadium's field. However, reporters could freely roam throughout the stadium, walk the aisles and see the ongoing stage construction.

Officials from the U.S. Consulate in Johannesburg also toured the venue Monday, but declined to speak to journalists.

Meanwhile, a private security firm called Sidas Security still was hiring guards for Tuesday's event on Monday, using a small car as an office. Sidas manager George Mathabe said the company will have 1,500 guards on duty Tuesday.

"I'm doing this from the bottom of my heart, just to thank Tata," Mathabe said, using the Xhosa word for father as an endearment name for Mandela. "My son is coming tomorrow as a visitor too. He's going to live in a free country. He's going to be able to do whatever he likes thanks to Tata."

Roads several square kilometers (miles) around the stadium will be closed Tuesday, and people will have to walk or take public transport to the stadium. Nearby stadiums equipped with viewing screens also will be open to accommodate overflow crowds.

Government Minister Collins Chabane told journalists Monday that officials "can't guess" how many people will attend or will try to enter the stadium.

"Once we see that the numbers are becoming unmanageable ... access will be denied," Chabane said.

Mandela died Thursday at age 95. After the stadium memorial on Tuesday, Mandela's body will lie in state at the Union Buildings, the seat of government in South Africa's capital, Pretoria, from Wednesday to Friday. He will be buried Sunday in Qunu, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's rural hometown in Eastern Cape Province.

South Africa's parliament held a special session Monday in honor of Mandela. Kgalema Motlanthe, the country's deputy president and a member of Mandela's African National Congress political party, opened the proceedings with a speech describing how the icon's death caused a "sweeping feeling of sorrow" around the world.

"He belongs to all humanity," Motlanthe said. He added: "Mandela's ideals saturate the face of the Earth."

Helen Zille, the leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance political party, said South Africa inherited "an enormous responsibility" from Mandela to ensure everyone had "freedom you can use."

"He has handed the baton to us and we dare not drop it," Zille said.

Outside the parliament building in Cape Town, people laid flowers at the foot of a large image of Mandela. Choirs sang and a big screen projected old video footage of Mandela speaking in parliament.

Two banners flanked an entrance to the building. One showed a young Mandela in traditional garb and the other elder Mandela in suit and tie.

Hundreds of visitors left written tributes. One in the sea of messages read: "No words are enough to describe the worth of your actions."

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Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia in Cape Town, South Africa, and Ray Faure contributed to this report.