With VIPs gone, mourning South Africans reclaim Madiba
Nelson Mandela was given back to ordinary South Africans, who queued in their thousands from early morning Thursday to file past his open casket on a day of viewing reserved for the public.
Until now the cameras of the world have often been trained on leaders, VIPs and celebrities paying tribute to a man known for his common touch — a man who related to princes and paupers with equal ease.
Ordinary mourners from all walks of life had also queued for hours on end Wednesday to view the body, but many were turned away by evening without having made it to the front of the long, winding line of people united in grief and gratitude for the father of their democratic nation.
Many returned on Thursday for another chance, with the entire day given over to general public access.
“My heart is so broken,” said Anita Bodiba, 35, who arrived at the seat of government, the Union Buildings, hours before dawn to join the long queue that had already formed.
“I can’t even sleep, I’m thinking of Madiba. He is the one who united us here in South Africa — white people, black people, Indian people,” she said — using the clan name by which the democracy icon is fondly known.
On Wednesday, Mandela’s distraught widow Graca Machel and other family members were followed by presidents, royalty and other international figures in paying their last respects in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings where the Nobel laureate is laying in state.
It was here that he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president in 1994, after emerging from 27 years’ imprisonment.
A third day of lying in state will be held Friday, after which Mandela’s body will be transported to his boyhood home of Qunu, ahead of its eventual burial on Sunday.
Thursday’s programme began, as the day before, with Mandela’s casket brought in a solemn cortege from the 1 Military Hospital to the Union Buildings.
Thousands lined the route as a black hearse, flanked by motorcycle outriders, carried the flag-draped coffin on its journey through the streets of Pretoria.
In the Union Buildings amphitheatre, soon to be renamed after him, Mandela’s body lies underneath a perspex screen, dressed in the type of printed shirt that became his trademark.
Two navy officers stood by the coffin, their eyes downcast, and Mandela’s grandson Mandla sat in a chair on the platform supporting the coffin.
Some visitors collapsed as they passed the coffin, felled by the weight of their grief, and were helped away by medical personnel and fellow mourners.
“It was so sad,” Alinah Lekalakala, 52, said after seeing the body of her icon.
“I needed to pay my last respects because I am so grateful for what he has done. This will help me to accept that he is gone.”
For Tryphina Kau, 78, the event was a joyful one.
“I am very, very happy because his spirit is still with us, only the body is going,” she said, recounting the day that Mandela shook her hand while she queued to vote in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
“I saw him at the beginning, and I came to see him at the end.”
Lebogang Phillips, a 36-year-old police officer who had served on Mandela’s security detail when he was president, remembered the man as “the friendliest person I have ever met”.
“When meeting people, he would always try to speak their language, whatever it was.”
The line of people queueing to catch a glimpse of their hero was already several city blocks shortly after dawn, and continued snaking around streets surrounding the Union Buildings by lunchtime.
Some mourners were dressed in the vibrant yellow, green and black of the ruling African National Congress that Mandela once led, and many wore black armbands.
People carried posters bearing Mandela’s likeness and many clutched miniature South African flags, dancing and singing revolutionary songs from the liberation struggle era as helicopters hovered overhead.
White South African siblings Sean and Louise Bos, 21 and 19 respectively, flew from Cape Town on Wednesday morning to be part of the historic occasion.
They queued until closing time without making it to the front, then returned at 5:30 am on Thursday, queueing about five hours to see him.
“We never met him so we thought we’d come to say goodbye,” said Sean, as the pair rushed to catch a plane home afterwards.