/ 11 December 2013

Family, thousands of mourners visit Mandela’s casket

Family, Thousands Of Mourners Visit Mandela's Casket

Thousands of South Africans and foreign visitors paused at the open casket of former president Nelson Mandela to say emotional farewells as he lay in state at the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, on Wednesday.

Mandela's family and fellow liberation leaders were the first mourners to pay their respects after the coffin was carried up the steps of the government seat by eight military officers. His widow Graça Machel​ stood silently next to the coffin, her head bowed, before former presidents Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk and Cabinet ministers past and present solemnly filed by.

Mandela was dressed in one of his trademark colourful batik shirts from Indonesia. Through a glass casing, visitors could see the brown-and-yellow shirt and Mandela's face. His lower body was covered. Four guards with heads bowed were guarding each corner of the coffin.

De Klerk's wife Elita dabbed away tears, as did Mandela's personal assistant of 18 years, Zelda la Grange, who clutched the hand of U2 singer Bono as she made her way to the casket.

Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda was part of contingent of African dignitaries that included Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan and Liberia's Ellen Sirleaf Johnson. "After spending 27 years in prison, breaking stones, he came out to speak of love across colour, love for humanity. That is why so many presidents, leaders, prime ministers have come to say farewell to this great son of the world," Kaunda said later.

Mandela's casket arrived at the Union Buildings after a public procession from 1 Military Hospital through streets lined with military personnel and members of the public. Some sang, others stopped briefly on their way to work to catch a glimpse of the glass-topped hearse carrying his remains to the same place where he set out his vision of a united "rainbow" nation nearly 20 years ago, when he was sworn in as president.

Sarah Ross, a US missionary who has lived in South Africa for six years, said she had not met Mandela, but was deeply moved by the experience of seeing him lying in state. "It was scary at first, but he was an amazing man. The work that God must have done on his heart is amazing."

A vast debt
Barbara Barde-Vaquette, a dentist from the island of Reunion, flew to South Africa when she heard that the country's globally loved liberation leader had died. "He's beautiful," she said. "[The viewing] was short, but I think I still need some time [for the experience] to sink in." 

Watching the cortege downtown earlier, Johannes Segooa said South Africans owed Mandela a vast debt. "His legacy will last forever as Tata has sacrificed a lot for us … He has run his race until the finish line."

By 5am, the government announced that it had accommodated as many mourners as it could on the first of three days of lying in state. But many refused to leave the queue and began singing.

On Tuesday, President Jacob Zuma announced that the Union Buildings amphitheatre would be named after Mandela, adding another Pretoria landmark that recalls his legacy.

On Wednesday morning, his funeral cortege passed several sites that spoke of key moments in his political journey that saw US President Barack Obama compare him to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King this week.

The hearse, led by motorcycle outriders, was taken past Pretoria Central Prison, where Mandela was held in 1962 for incitement and leaving South Africa illegally. It also passed the high court in Pretoria, where Mandela stood trial for treason and sabotage and made his now legendary pledge, in April 1964, that he was prepared to die for the ideal of a nonracial society. It also passed close to the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital, in the capital, where Mandela spent three months earlier this year while well-wishers kept up a constant vigil outside the gates.

Quiet mourning
Wednesday's scenes of reverent mourning contrasted sharply with the rain-soaked, noisy official memorial for Mandela in Soweto, where Obama led foreign tributes with a eulogy that hailed the liberation hero as a "giant of history" and was carried in full in media around the world. 

The memorial at times saw political drama overshadow the proceedings. Zuma was loudly heckled by the crowd, in contrast to cheers that went up for Obama, Mbeki and De Klerk, as he weathers political scandal and discontent at pervasive inequality and poor service delivery months before the next elections.

Mandela will be buried in his boyhood village of Qunu, in the Eastern Cape, on Sunday. – Sapa