PRETORIA – Nelson Mandela’s tearful widow was among scores of family and dignitaries who stopped to pay their last respects before Nelson Mandela’s open casket Wednesday, as the celebrated leader lay in state.
Clad in a black head-dress, Graca Machel stood in silence before the raised coffin, which was guarded at each end by two navy officers clad in white dress uniform, heads bowed and with swords pointing downward.
Later presidents and royalty made their 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 in his lifetime forged a powerful political legacy.
Among the dignitaries were Mandela’s former political foe FW de Klerk, musician and activist Bono and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
Earlier a black hearse phalanxed by 16 motorcycle outriders had carried 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 on 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 South African government the casket was unloaded by eight pallbearers representing the branches of the armed forces in full uniform.
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, signifying 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.
Mandela’s final journey through Pretoria is laden with symbolism and replete with landmarks that carry resonance in his life.
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 other 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 cortege will pass near the one-time home of Paul Kruger, the father of the Afrikaner nation.
“Oom (Uncle) Paul” was the president of the Transvaal, leading a resistance movement against British rule during the first Anglo-Boer War, which began in 1880.
That Afrikaner nationalism later morphed into support for the National Party, which introduced apartheid.
The funeral procession will be repeated for three days, ending each time at the Union Buildings — the seat of government where previous presidents had signed aspects of the apartheid system into law.
The public will be allowed to view the casket each afternoon, before Mandela’s body is transported to his boyhood home of Qunu in the Eastern cape for its eventual burial on Sunday.
The lying in state is expected to be a sombre, subdued affair compared to Tuesday’s celebratory memorial service in Soweto — the crucible of the anti-apartheid movement.
Tens of thousands of 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.
“It is hard to eulogise any man … how much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation towards justice,” Obama told the cheering crowd.
Mandela had been critically ill for months, but the announcement of his death on Thursday at the age of 95 was still a body blow to a country struggling with multiple social and economic challenges.
For many, Mandela — even a frail, aged and retired Mandela — represented, while he was alive, a moral beacon that retained the promise of better times ahead.
Current President Jacob Zuma was roundly booed by large portions of the crowd at Tuesday’s memorial service, a sign of growing impatience with Mandela’s successors to deliver on promises of equality and prosperity.
Two decades after the racist apartheid regime was consigned to history, millions of black South Africans remain poor, unemployed and without formal housing in a society that is among the world’s most unequal.