Nelson Mandela lies in state in Pretoria; throngs expected to pay respects

Posted at 6:22 AM, Dec 11, 2013
and last updated 2013-12-11 08:22:07-05

By Jethro Mullen and Ed Payne

(CNN) — Heads bowed, solemn, they filed by.

The rich, the powerful. The famous and the family. All of them bidding goodbye to anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela on Wednesday, the first of three days his body will lie in state at the seat of South Africa’s government.

First was South African President Jacob Zuma, then came Mandela’s widow Graça Machel and former wife Winnie Mandela, both wearing black turbans.

In near silence, dozens of family members passed by as military honor guards dressed in white flanked the coffin on each end.

There were others too. Former South African leaders Thabo Mbeki and F.W. de Klerk, the country’s last apartheid-era president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. U2’s Bono also paused for a moment before moving on. So did Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

The first several hours was reserved for family and dignitaries, but the public will be allowed to file past his casket later Wednesday, as well as on Thursday and Friday. Viewing hours are expected to be limited to daylight. Long lines are expected to form from the very early hours of the morning in the next two days.

On Saturday, events will shift south. A military aircraft will take Mandela’s remains from a Pretoria airbase to Mthatha, the main town in the province of Eastern Cape.

Thousands of mourners are expected to line the streets from Mthatha airport to watch as the military transports Mandela’s casket on a gun carriage to the remote village of Qunu, where the former leader spent his childhood years.

Historic venue

The hearse carrying the casket of the former South African leader, who died last week at 95, arrived early Wednesday. It weaved through streets lined with people in Pretoria, the capital, on its way to the Union Buildings.

The somber mood Wednesday was a sharp change from the celebratory atmosphere at a huge memorial event for him a day earlier in Johannesburg.

“This is a very poignant moment,” Khehla Shubane, who served time in prison with Mandela. “This is not the Mandela who was in control of things that were happening around him, inspiring people. This is a Mandela who’s in death now.”

As the body arrived, an honor guard stood at attention and a hushed crowd looked on as eight military officers, led by a chaplain, carried the coffin inside. Police helicopters hovered overhead. A South African flag hung outside at half staff.

Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela and Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula led a small group of mourners wearing black who walked behind the coffin.

Mandela’s casket was placed under a dome, very close to the place where he took the oath of office to become South Africa’s first democratically elected president on May 10, 1994.

On that extraordinary day, crowds converged around the building to witness history being made. Mandela, a former political prisoner, achieved what was once unthinkable and became South Africa’s first post-apartheid black leader.

World leaders gather

The commemorative events have already taken on an epic scale. The massive memorial on Tuesday for Mandela was billed as one of the largest gatherings of global leaders in recent history.

From U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuban President Raul Castro, praise came from all sides in a four-hour memorial service at Johannesburg FNB stadium for the revered statesman.

“We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama said in a speech to roaring cheers.

“To the people of South Africa — people of every race and every walk of life — the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us,” he said, calling him a “giant of history.”

Gray skies and pouring rain throughout the service did little to dampen the mood.

Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was celebratory, with people dancing and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle.

Huge poster pictures of Mandela hung around them. In that same place 23 years earlier, Mandela had delivered his first speech after he was released from prison, hailed by supporters as the hope of a new South Africa.

Also known as Soccer City, the stadium was where Mandela made his last public appearance at the World Cup final in July 2010.

CNN’s Robyn Curnow and Marie-Louise Gumuchian contributed to this report.

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