WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama and two of his predecessors, George

W Bush and Bill Clinton, will be flying to South Africa next week to to attend Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, the White House reported. “President Obama and the First Lady will go to South Africa next week to pay their respects to the memory of Nelson Mandela and to participate in memorial events,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday. Obama invited the former presidents to join him aboard Air Force One in a trip that will give them a chance to bond over their shared admiration for the late South African leader who died at age 95 on Thursday. Obama has called Mandela a hero who helped set his own personal trajectory, and both Bush and Clinton have made Africa a priority in their post-presidential careers.

“We had a genuine friendship,” Clinton told CNN, speaking of his numerous consultations with Mandela and visits with him. Clinton said he and his daughter, Chelsea, plan to fly to South Africa from Brazil, where they are scheduled to do charity events for his foundation. He also indicated to Fox News that his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would attend. Mandela had a “fierce loyalty to anybody who had stuck by him personally” during his 27 years in prison, Bill Clinton told CNN. He told two stories to underline the point - one about when Mandela came to the United States and blasted Republican efforts to impeach Clinton, and another about a charity auction for Mandela’s foundation where Clinton bid on a bottle of Cuban rum that Fidel Castro had given to Mandela.

Clinton said he bid on the rum and then realized he couldn’t bring the bottle home because of the US embargo on Cuban goods. South Africa made preparations for a prolonged series of events to mark and memorialize Mandela, as crowds gathered outside Mandela’s home in Johannesburg.

Many brought flowers and tributes and sang songs to honour the man who led South Africa out of white minority rule and preached tolerance and

reconciliation after he was released from prison.