Market traders in Brixton in south London, teenage grunge fans, young mothers with their babies, and the entire political establishment were united in their desire to see - and, if possible, touch - President Mandela.
At least one member of the crowd in Brixton had travelled from as far away as Glasgow to catch a glimpse of the South African president (and failed).
It is not just that Mr Mandela embodies the most extraordinary fortitude, having endured 27 years in jail, or tolerance, having emerged without bitterness towards his captors, or dignity, though he has that in abundance. He is also a symbol of hope that even the most intractable problems - Ulster, say - can be solved. No wonder people wanted to see him and believe.
For one small but significant group in British society the visit was especially poignant. Up to 100,000 South Africans made their homes here during the apartheid years: some because they were forced out by the government, others because they simply wanted a normal life. At a reception for 500 of them at the High Commissioner's residence on Friday afternoon, Mr Mandela urged them to return to South Africa if they could and, if not, to be "ambassadors" for the country wherever they were.
That will not be too difficult a task: thanks to the Mandela factor, South Africa is now positively fashionable. As Mandela-mania moves on to France, where the president is the guest of honour at today's Bastille Day military parade, one can ask what lasting results his visit here might have.
The mass public adulation for the South African leader shamed those in the British establishment who for years tried to build up his Zulu rival, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Some acted out of a romantic but ultimately patronising attachment to the Zulu people which derives directly from Rousseau's ideal of "the noble savage"; others saw Chief Buthelezi, who will never be more than a sectional leader, as the Christian, non-communist, socially conservative alternative to the fellow-travelling Mr Mandela, who remains closely allied with the South African Communist Party. Now, however, they might stop trying to steer British policy down a dead end.
The hope of Mr Mandela and his large entourage, expressed in a news conference at the end of the visit, is that they have engendered public support in Britain for trade, investment and economic aid to help South Africa to overcome the legacy of apartheid. The wealth gap between whites and blacks remains huge, contributing to one of the worst crime problems anywhere in the world. Many townships lack the most basic amenities and have unemployment rates of more than 40 per cent. Not to fulfil their aspirations would be dangerous, but to do that South Africa will need outside help.
It might have escaped most of the cheering Britons who turned out to see Mr Mandela, but he does not represent the happy ending to a fairytale. In the real world he is a man with a job still to do, and that was the purpose of his visit.
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