By Christopher Torchia
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA: Black and white, old and young, South Africans by the thousands paid final tribute Wednesday to their beloved Nelson Mandela. In silence or murmuring, they filed past the coffin. Some glanced back, as if clinging to the sight, a moment in history.
One man raised his fist, the potent gesture of the struggle against white rule that Mandela led from prison. A woman fainted on the steps, and was helped into a wheelchair.
They had only a few seconds to look at the man many called “tata” — father in his native Xhosa — his face and upper body visible through a clear bubble atop the casket, dressed in a black-and-yellow shirt of the kind he favored as a statesman.
“I wish I can say to him, ‘Wake up and don’t leave us,’ ” said teacher Mary Kgobe, 52, after viewing the casket at the century-old Union Buildings government complex overlooking the capital, Pretoria, that was once the seat of white power.
Wearing the black, green and gold of the African National Congress, the ruling party Mandela once led, she was among the multitude who endured hours in the sun to say goodbye to the man they call their father, liberator and peacemaker.
Kgobe said losing Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at 95, was like losing a part of herself.
“This moment is really electrifying, knowing well what he did for us. I wish we could follow in his steps and be humble like he was,” said Kgobe, whose grandfather, an ANC activist, was arrested several times.
Long lines of mourners snaked through the capital for a glimpse of Mandela’s body as it lay in state for three days — an image reminiscent of the miles-long queues of voters who waited patiently to cast their ballots during South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994 that saw Mandela become the country’s first black president.
At a parking lot where buses ferried people to the viewing, the mood was cheerful. When a bus carrying supporters of the ANC made a wrong turn and drove away from the Union Buildings, one man joked: “Do they think we will steal the body?”
There was order and respect once they disembarked at the foot of steps leading to a marquee that sheltered Mandela’s casket. Signs on the wall said no firearms were allowed. Some people shielded themselves from the sun with squares of cardboard plastered with large images of Mandela.
“Today was the first day and the last day I saw him. … I had to see him for myself even if I couldn’t speak with him,” said Amos Mafolo, who works in logistics for the South African police.
When his four children are older, Mafolo said, he will tell them where he was on this day.
Silver Mogotlane opened his heart, saying he knew Mandela as a symbol and a historical figure, but still wondered in awe: “Who is this man?”
“I’m lost. My mind is lost,” he said after passing the casket.
Police officers stood nearby, one holding a box of tissues.