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Crowds Gather to See Mandela Lying in State

Outpouring of Emotion at Memorial for South Africa’s Mandela
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Outpouring of Emotion at Memorial for South Africa’s Mandela

The body of beloved South African icon Nelson Mandela is lying in state for three days ahead of his Sunday funeral. On Wednesday, thousands of people lined the streets of Pretoria for their chance to say goodbye.

Lindiwe Geza awoke at dawn to iron her heavy, mustard-yellow dress. She took care to arrange the many layers of her Xhosa traditional outfit just so -- the beaded cape that jingles when she dances, the heavy skirt, the carefully wound headdress.

She then took the bus to a nondescript street corner in Pretoria.

And then, along with the rest of the world, she waited.

Just after 7:00 a.m., a cortege emerged from the military hospital where Mandela had previously been admitted as a patient. He died Thursday at the age of 95 after an extraordinary life. He’s credited with ending South Africa’s oppressive apartheid regime and bringing peace to his racially divided nation.

People react as the procession for former South African president Nelson Mandela leaves the military hospital in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
People react as the procession for former South African president Nelson Mandela leaves the military hospital in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
Military police saluted down the chain like dominoes as they were passed by the car carrying Mandela’s coffin, draped in the brightly colored South African flag.

That was her only glimpse of Mandela, but she said, it was worth the effort. “So we thought that, you know, to iron these clothes actually, it’s not a big deal, because although, even if it takes a lot of time, it’s nothing compared to the time he took and the sacrifice that he has made for us in order that today we can be a rainbow nation,” explained Geza.

The somber procession then drove through central Pretoria on roads formerly named after the architects of apartheid. Thousands crowded the streets, waving flags and signs, and singing and dancing in praise of Mandela.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Mandela’s body will lie in state through Friday at the Union Buildings in Pretoria -- the compound where he worked after he became the nation’s first black president in 1994.

A solemn honor guard carried the casket into Pretoria’s Union Buildings. The first viewers were a veritable who’s who of world leaders, South African elites and international superstars -- evidence of Mandela’s truly global influence.

A drawn and regal-looking Winnie-Madikizela Mandela, Mandela’s former wife and partner in the struggle against apartheid, held on to her daughter Zindzi for support.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 89 and a longtime critic of Mandela, bowed curtly before the white-draped casket. His much younger wife Grace attempted a curtsy. South Africa’s police commissioner saluted, clenching her fists as she walked away resolutely.

And then came the ordinary mourners, in quick succession, men and women of all ages and colors, passing by his coffin in a blur. Firefighters, police, young men in jeans and women in African National Congress t-shirts walked by. Many wiped their eyes or openly sobbed as they walked away.

The event also drew droves of visitors and non-South Africans. Paula Gutierrez is a native of Colombia. She has lived in Pretoria for a year, and said she felt she needed to see Mandela for one last time.

“I just think that just being part of this is being part of history, is being part of an icon moment, and being part of this leader, and saying goodbye.”

Mandela’s body will be on view through Friday in Pretoria. He will then be buried on Sunday in a family ceremony in his ancestral home of Qunu.