JOHANNESBURG: South Africans crowded into churches, mosques, temples and synagogues on Sunday to remember Nelson Mandela, encouraged by their president to celebrate a life that transcended race and religion.
The nationwide day of prayer marked the formal start of a weeklong state funeral for the man who forged a new multi-racial South Africa from the discredited remnants of the apartheid era he helped to dismantle.
In the Regina Mundi Catholic church in the once blacks-only township of Soweto, parish priest Sebastian Rossouw called Mandela “a light in the darkness” and praised his capacity for “humility and forgiveness.”
Inside the church, once used as a sanctuary by anti-apartheid activists during police raids, a single candle illuminated a portrait of Mandela with a raised-fist salute.
“He fought for us then, now he needs to rest,” said Olga Mbeke, 60, who was born in Soweto.
The extraordinary depth and breadth of Mandela’s appeal will see heads of state of every political stripe rub shoulders with leaders across the religious spectrum and marquee names from the worlds of sports, art and entertainment during the funeral events.
US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle will be among 80,000 people attending a vast memorial service on Tuesday in the Soweto sports stadium that hosted the 2010 World Cup final.
The commemorations will culminate in Mandela’s burial on December 15 in Qunu—the rural village where he spent his early childhood.
Throughout the night Saturday, large crowds gathered outside the house in Johannesburg where South Africa’s first black president passed away on Thursday, aged 95.
At times they lit candles and linked arms in silent remembrance, but then, as if to lift the mood, one group or another would burst into song and the entire crowd would join in and dance in celebration of a life that transformed their country and inspired the world.
It was a sentiment that President Jacob Zuma had encouraged ahead of Sunday’s day of prayer.
“We should, while mourning, also sing at the top of our voices, dance and do whatever we want to do, to celebrate the life of this outstanding revolutionary,” Zuma said.
The president was to attend a Methodist Church in a predominantly white Johannesburg neighborhood, while former president Thabo Mbeki was to join prayers at a synagogue in the city.
The prayers were to be echoed a continent away in London, where Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, will lead a remembrance service.