The death of Nelson Mandela: A last chance to offer last respects for Madiba

They came and waited patiently in their thousands for a momentary glimpse of their hero, passing the time with songs and stories about the leader who changed their lives. Andrew Buncombe joined the queue in Pretoria

Pretoria

After about three-and-half hours of zigging and zagging, twisting and turning, the police realised things were not going to plan.

There were simply too many people and not enough buses. So they decided it would be quicker to walk. “Hold hands with the person in front of you,” said a police officer. “We will walk up the hill.”

People reached out. With the left hand The Independent clasped hold of Constance Malebano, a 22-year-old woman who was there with her fiancé; the right hand grasped that of Moepi Muabante, a lawyer who revealed that his professional association, the Law Society of the Northern Provinces, counted Mahamta Gandhi and Nelson Mandela among its alumni.

Finally we were moving, a human chain heading up the hill to see the body of the former president. But it was slow, slow going.

Thousands and thousands of people queued up for hours on Wednesday in South Africa’s capital to pay their final respects to the country’s first black president, who is to lie in state until Friday. While an estimated 10,000 people were able to file past the flag-draped casket where Mr Mandela lay dressed in a patterned shirt, when the authorities cut the line and the coffin was taken back to the mortuary for the night, many thousands were turned away disappointed.

Dignitaries and members of Mr Mandela’s family, including his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and his widow, Graca Machel, were taken there privately on Wednesday morning, and the media was permitted entry after lunch. But for ordinary people wanting to catch a hurried glimpse of the 95-year-old’s remains there was no alternative but to line up and try and board one of the dozens of buses ferrying people to the site.

Ms Malebano and her fiancé, Fannie Shongwe, had set off on Wednesday morning, walking down Madiba Street, the route Mr Mandela’s cortège had taken a few hours earlier. She wore a denim skirt, he had a South African flag wrapped around his shoulders. Both were determined.

Even by noon, the time at which the public were to be admitted, the line for the buses looked vast, stretching back and forth across Church Square and then heading down another street. But Mr Shongwe, a 38-year-old teaching assistant, was not disheartened. “In the election in 1994, when we first got to vote, the lines were much longer,” he said.

Also in the queue were Pule Msibi, 26, and his 17-year-old sister Mosa. Mr Msibi said he was seven when South Africa won the rugby world cup, a victory over the All Blacks of New Zealand that was inspired by Mr Mandela’s election as president the year before. He said he remembered his grandmother dancing for a week.

“We don’t know the struggle the earlier generations went through but we appreciate the liberation we have now,” he said.

The afternoon wore on, hot and chaotic, but with the line largely retaining its discipline and queue jumpers being ejected. Hawkers sold hats, badges and food and sometimes people in the line danced to beat the boredom.

Mr Msibi played songs by the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti on his mobile phone while Mr Shongwe picked up fried chicken for everyone from a fast food joint. Some suggested calling it a day and trying their luck the following morning but almost everyone stayed in place. Officers  handed out water.

After the police scrapped the idea of the buses and got everyone walking, the pace quickened. Soon the line was crossing a main road and inching its way up a steep incline towards the Union Buildings, seat of the South African government and set upon a hill overlooking Pretoria. Nineteen years ago Mr Mandela had been sworn in here as the county’s first black president.

The nearer the line approached his casket, the more sombre the mood became. Police ordered people to turn off their phones and stop singing. Some of the songs had been of peace, others reflected the years when Mr Mandela headed an armed struggle. “Hurry up,” the police kept chiding. “We are going to cut the line.”

There were more twists, more turns, an ascent of steps leading to the Presidency building and suddenly everyone was confronted by the site of a white temporary structure containing the Nobel laureate’s casket. Four junior naval officers in white uniforms stood guard, as did dozens of police. Some were said to be holing boxes of tissues.

By now what had started as a reverential walk had turned into something approaching a trot. People passed on either side of the casket, with just a moment to glance at Mr Mandela. His eyes were shut, his white hair immaculate. Some said they spotted a the faintest hint of a smile. Reports said his shirt was brown with yellow patterns, though it may have been blue. In an instant everyone was past him.

Outside in the sunshine someone checked the time. It had taken five hours and ten minutes to get here and view the president’s remains, and now finally it was over the group was hushed, still. “Suddenly it is real,” said Mr Shongwe. “Until now it has been like a dream. But now I have seen him, I know he has gone.”

Mr Msibi, the young man who had come with his sister, said he felt close to tears. “I feel like I have lost a father,” he explained. “I feel like crying. But with elders it is not respectful to cry when they die because it suggests they have not done enough during their lives.”

To the west the sun was dipping. People made their way back down the hill, considerably faster than coming up, and went their separate ways.

At around 6pm it was reported that Mr Mandela’s casket had been loaded into the hearse and taken back the to Military Hospital on the outskirts of Pretoria, military outriders escorting the cortège.

It will brought back again this morning and thousands more will line up to say goodbye.

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