Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mandela Pays Tribute to ANC Exiles

South African President Nelson Mandela stood under a pouring rain Friday in silent homage at the graves of two South Africans who died in exile in the Soviet Union during the long battle with apartheid.

Friday was the first time Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before being released in 1990, had a chance to lay flowers at the graves of Moses Kotane and John Marks, top South African communists who are buried at Moscow's elite Novodevichy Cemetery.

"This is the earliest moment I can be here," Mandela said. "And the fact that it's taken so long after my release to come here does not in any way diminish my respect for the contribution they made in our freedom.

"I come here in order to pay homage to heroes who are acknowledged by almost everybody who loves freedom and peace in our country," he said.

Mandela, 80, had planned trips to the Soviet Union and to Russia before, but each time they had to be canceled for political or health reasons.

Marks and Kotane were among thousands of South African communists and members of the African National Congress who were forced to live in exile during apartheid. Many moved to the Soviet Union due to the close ties between t he South African Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Marks, who died in 1972, was general secretary of the South African party and Kotane, who died in 1978, served as its chairman.

Mandela called both men "architects of liberation."

"It is a great privilege indeed for me to be able to come and pay my respect to such great heroes. ? And for me it is moving moment to be here," Mandela said later. "They were more than friends, they were comrades-in-arms."

Mandela's three-day visit to Russia is part of his farewell trip around the world aimed at thanking the countries who supported black South Africans' battle with the white minority government, which enforced a policy of racial apartheid. The tour is intended to boost the country's foreign relations.

Mandela will also visit Hungary, Pakistan and China. The man elected in 1994 in his country's first multiracial elections, will leave office after the second such vote, on June 2. His successor is expected to be his deputy, Thabo Mbeki.

Friday was Mandela's last day in Moscow. Although most official events, including meeting with President Boris Yeltsin, took place Thursday, Mandela had a packed schedule the next day.

Before the cemetery visit, Mandela was at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Sparrow Hills to receive honorary doctorates from the State Academy of Science and Moscow State University. At the ceremony Mandela said he was grateful that many South African experts received higher education in the former Soviet Union, Interfax reported.