independent

Friday 25 April 2014

Nation queues for Mandela farewell

A picture of Nelson Mandela at the signing of the book of Condolence for Nelson Mandela at the Republic of South Africa Embassy in Ballsbridge yesterday. Photo: Tom Burke

World leaders and thousands of South Africans have filed past Nelson Mandela's flag-draped coffin as he lies in state in the amphitheatre where he was sworn in 19 years earlier as the country's first black president.

Some made the sign of the cross, others simply gazed at his face through a glass bubble atop the coffin at the Union Buildings, the government offices in Pretoria.

Mr Mandela was dressed in a black and yellow patterned shirt, a trademark style that he adopted as a statesman. His eyes were closed. His white hair swept up from his forehead.

Mandela family members and world leaders viewed the body first. By the afternoon the public had formed long queues but the government said the "cut-off" point had been reached, urging people instead to arrive early on the following two days to get their chance.

Leaders like Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, South African president Jacob Zuma and others passed by in two lines. Four junior naval officers in white uniforms kept watch. Celebrities like singer Bono also paid their respects. So did F.W. de Klerk, the last president of white rule who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mr Mandela for ending the apartheid era.

Mr Mandela 's widow Graca Machel, his former wife Winnie Madikizela- Mr Mandela and other family members also viewed his body.

Some appeared lost for a moment looking down at Mr Mandela. South Sudan's Salva Kiir Mayardit stood transfixed before removing his trademark black cowboy hat and crossing himself.

Police were a few steps away, one holding a box of tissues. Some clearly were overcome by the sight, one woman covering her entire face, weeping as she walked away supported by a colleague. Others carried posters bearing Mr Mandela's image.

Police motorcycle officers had escorted the hearse from a military hospital outside Pretoria to the Union Buildings. People lined the streets to watch the procession, singing old songs from the struggle against the apartheid regime and calling out their farewells.

Army helicopters had been circling overhead but then a sudden quiet fell as the hearse arrived. Eight warrant officers representing the various services and divisions of the South African National Defence Force carried the coffin, led by a military chaplain in a purple stole. The officers set down the coffin and removed the flag.

Officials have banned cameras from the viewing area and asked people to turn off their mobile phones.

Mr Mandela's body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings, which the South African government describes as a "modern-day acropolis" atop a hill overlooking Pretoria. The architect who designed it envisioned its two wings, made of half a million cubic feet of stone, representing the Afrikaans and English languages spoken in the country - but none of the land's native languages.

Even from its inception, the majestic buildings have long been considered a symbol of governance in the country - and of apartheid until Mr Mandela took office.

Each day Mr Mandela's coffin will be driven back to hospital to be held overnight. Authorities have asked the public to line the street as an honour guard for each trip.

The government set up buses to bring in mourners. At the Pretoria Showgrounds, one gathering point, the queue of people waiting for hours started pressing forward against fencing there. Police ended up having to help some children and elderly people away as they feared they would be hurt in the crush.

Mr Mandela's body will be flown on Saturday to Qunu, his home in the Eastern Cape Province. He will be buried on Sunday.

-AP

Press Association

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