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South Africa mourns as Mandela lies in state for second day

South Africans will get a second chance Thursday to pay their last respects to Nelson Mandela, a day after his distraught widow joined thousands of mourners at his open casket.

Graca Machel, clad in a black headdress with her eyes shielded by sunglasses, placed both hands on the raised coffin before turning away disconsolate on Wednesday.

At each end of the casket stood two navy officers clad in white dress uniform, heads bowed, eyes closed and swords pointing downward.

Underneath a perspex screen the anti-apartheid icon Mandela lay, dressed in a printed brown shirt of the type that became his trademark.

Later, presidents, royalty and thousands of South Africans made their own pilgrimage.

Some stopped briefly to pray, some bowed, some brushed against the rope balustrade to get a closer look at the mortal remains of a man who had earned a place in history long before his death.

Some collapsed, felled by the weight of their grief, before being helped away by medical personnel or fellow onlookers.

A blind man with a cane passed by, helped by an aide.

“I was just feeling sad when I saw him lying there as if he can wake up. As if I can say ‘Mr Mandela, how are you?'” said 44-year-old Anna Mtsoweni, who had joined the queue before dawn.

Among the dignitaries were Mandela’s former political foe FW de Klerk, ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and musician and activist Bono.

The Irish rocker accompanied Mandela’s long time aide-de-camp Zelda Le Grange, who appeared heartbroken and needed to be supported throughout.

Thousands more people who were in the queue, which at one point stretched for around one and a half kilometres (a mile), were unable to complete their mission.

They, along with thousands of others, will get another chance on Thursday.

Public guard of honour

The day began with a black hearse, flanked by 16 motorcycle outriders, carrying Mandela’s flag-draped coffin on a solemn journey through the streets of Pretoria, the South African capital.

The cortege moved briskly through streets lined with flag-waving South Africans who formed a public guard of honour.

“I never met Mandela, so this is my only chance and it’s important I pay my respects. I’m South African — I have to be here,” said 28-year-old Vaughan Motshwene.

Some cheered but many were tearful, aware that Mandela’s death last Thursday aged 95 opened a new chapter in South African history.

“It feels like the end of an era. All the opportunities I’ve had growing up that my parents never had, Madiba gave me that,” said government employee Faaiqia Hartley, 27.

“He gave all of us an opportunity to be the best we could be.”

At Union Buildings, the seat of the South African government, eight pallbearers in full regalia representing the branches of the armed forces unloaded the casket.

From there it was carried up the steps toward the towering acropolis of beige freestone, where nearly two decades ago Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president, sealing the rebirth of this long-troubled nation.

Trailing behind the coffin was Mandela’s oldest grandson, Mandla Mandela, his manifest grief a poignant reminder that while the nation lost a hero, Mandela’s family lost a father, grandfather and husband.

Mandela’s open coffin was placed on a cubic platform in the building’s amphitheatre, soon to be renamed in his honour, where it will be on view for three days.

Journey of memories

Mandela’s final journey through Pretoria is laden with symbolism and replete with landmarks that carry resonance in his life and that of this deeply scarred nation.

The procession passed the central prison where he was jailed in 1962 for incitement and leaving the country illegally.

Another landmark is the Palace of Justice, the court where Mandela famously stood trial in 1963-64 for treason and sabotage with 10 co-defendants.

His conviction and subsequent life sentence marked the beginning of a 27-year jail stint, from which he finally emerged in 1990 as the structure of apartheid crumbled around its white minority supporters.

The funeral procession will be repeated on Thursday and Friday, ending each time at the Union Buildings where previous presidents signed aspects of the apartheid system into law.

Mandela’s body will be transported to his boyhood home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape for eventual burial on Sunday.

The lying in state was a sombre, subdued affair compared with Tuesday’s celebratory memorial service in Soweto — the crucible of the anti-apartheid movement.

Tens of thousands of rain-soaked people attended the event in Soweto’s World Cup stadium where US President Barack Obama led foreign tributes to the life and legacy of Mandela, whose appeal and influence spread far beyond his native land.

Mandela’s family on Wednesday said they were touched by the thousands of people who braved terrible weather to attend the memorial service.

“We were particularly humbled by the fact that thousands of people braved cold and wet weather to honour Madiba and stand by us,” the family said in a statement.

Meanwhile the US White House dismissed Republican criticism of President Barack Obama’s handshake with Cuban leader Raul Castro at Mandela’s memorial service.

Obama has faced a backlash from Republican rivals after exchanging pleasantries with Castro, the leader of a Communist-run country that has been bitterly estranged from the United States since 1961.

The White House has insisted the gesture was not “pre-planned” while a Cuban government-run website noted hopefully that the handshake could “be the beginning of the end of the US aggressions against Cuba.”