South Africans of all races and religions united in an outpouring of prayer and song for their beloved Nelson Mandela on Sunday, hearing calls to keep his dream of a Rainbow Nation alive.
Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues across the country rang out with hymn and homily — a nationwide day of prayer to begin a week of remembrance for the anti-apartheid icon.
In a statement Mandela’s family implored this still deeply scarred nation, and people beyond its shores, to “keep his dream alive.”
“We know and know too well that you the people of the world will not fail Mandela.”
From a Methodist Church in Johannesburg, President Jacob Zuma echoed that sentiment in an impassioned plea to the nation.
“He preached and practised reconciliation, to make those who had been fighting forgive one another and become one nation,” Zuma told a mixed race congregation of more than 1,000 worshippers.
“He preached and believed in peace, that we should live in peace, that we should live in unity.”
In the congregation Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and his grandson Mandla looked on, often appearing to recede deep into their sadness.
‘He fought for us then, now he needs to rest’
In the Regina Mundi Catholic church in 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.
In Johannesburg, speaking to an exclusively white, Afrikaans congregation at Melville Dutch Reformed Church, Reverend Andre Bartlett asked them to “think back to the 1990s,” when the old order was crumbling and a newly-freed Mandela was preparing his successful run for the presidency.
“Remember the fears we had over what would happen to the country: under the leadership of Mr Mandela, none of those fears came true,” Bartlett said.
Sunday marked the formal start of a week-long state funeral for the man who forged a new multi-racial South Africa from the discredited remnants of the apartheid era he helped dismantle.
On Monday, South Africa’s recalled parliament will meet for a special session to honour the man who emerged from 27 years in prison to lead his country out of the shadow of apartheid into a multi-racial democracy.
Mandela last appeared in the house in February 2010, on the 20th anniversary of his prison release.
His former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and grandson Mandla are both ruling African National Congress (ANC) members of parliament, but it was unclear if they would participate in the session.
The extraordinary depth and breadth of Mandela’s appeal will see around 70 heads of state and government 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 Tuesday in the Soweto sports stadium that hosted the 2010 World Cup final.
The commemorations will culminate with Mandela’s burial on December 15 in Qunu — the rural village where he spent his early childhood.
While Mandela’s health had been in serious decline for some time, his death still came as a shock to South Africans whose attachment to their first black president was profound and deeply personal.
Permanent day and night vigils have been held outside the Johannesburg resident where he died — the mood alternating between one of profound loss and relief that his physical suffering was over.
‘The pillar of the family is gone’
As well as the steady pilgrimage to his Johannesburg residence, crowds have gathered at other sites linked to Mandela — his childhood home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, his old house in Soweto and outside Cape Town’s City Hall.
Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days from Wednesday in the amphitheatre of the Union Buildings in Pretoria where was sworn in as president in 1994.
His coffin will be taken in a cortege through the streets of Pretoria each morning to allow as many people as possible to say farewell.
Among the many world leaders scheduled to attend is Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan more than a dozen other African leaders.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will also attend.
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and singer-activist Bono, as well as Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel are expected to be among the celebrity mourners.
Mandela’s fellow Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, who has twice since 2009 been denied a visa for South Africa, will not attend, his spokesman said. AFP