On a hillside above Soweto people dressed in white robes were clustered in groups and from across the slope trickled the sound of women singing.
The members of the Johane Masowe Jerusalem Apostolic congregation do not have an actual church building. So twice a week, rain or shine, they gather on this scruffy piece of wasteland, take off their shoes and hold a service of prayers and hymns. And today, there were special words and songs for Nelson Mandela.
“We prayed that he has a peaceful rest. He was a great man,” said one of the group’s priests, Hapson Mazoyo. “We pray that we have more leaders like him.”
Three days after the death of the 95-year-old former President, millions of people across South Africa turned out in a day of prayer, giving thanks for his life and reflecting on his contribution to the nation. In churches and mosques, community halls and synagogues, huge numbers turned out on a day that marked the start of the official programme of mourning.
Already, at least 53 heads of state and government have said they will attend either a memorial service to be held tomorrow at a sports stadium in Soweto or else the funeral due to take place on Sunday at Mr Mandela’s ancestral home in Qunu. Barack Obama, David Cameron and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be among those at tomorrow’s memorial; Prince Charles will attend the funeral.
Officials in South Africa say the funeral will be among the biggest to be held in anywhere in the world in recent years. Logistics for the event are likely to be extremely complicated.
On Wednesday, Mr Mandela’s body will be taken to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, official home of the government, where it will lie in state for three days. It remains unclear whether his casket will be open or closed.
Among those attending religious services yesterday were members of Mr Mandela’s family. At the Bryanston Methodist church in Johannesburg, Mr Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and one of his grandsons, Mandla Mandela, listened to an address from President Jacob Zuma, who urged South Africans not to lose sight of the values the late President had stood for.
“We felt it important that we should have a day where all of us as South Africans can come together and pray for our first democratic president and reflect on his legacy,” said Mr Zuma. “But it is also to pray for our nation, to pray that we not forget some of the values he fought for.”
One of the liveliest of the thousands of such services was held at the cavernous Regina Mundi church in Soweto, one of the biggest Catholic churches in the country, where upwards of 2,000 people squeezed inside to hear the priest, Sebastian Rossouw, describe Mr Mandela as a guiding light.
The church, built in 1964, is celebrated for its role as a sanctuary during the Soweto uprisings. On 16 June 1976, after police killed 13-year-old Hector Pieterson, dozens of students fled inside, only for police to burst in.
“He was an icon,” the church’s guide, Danny Dube, said of Mr Mandela, and he pointed out the bullet holes in the ceiling caused by the police that day when they stormed in and opened fire with live ammunition. “He brought people together.”
The people in the white robes, gathered on the hillside just a few miles away, said they believed they could communicate with God just as easily without a church building. Like many others yesterday, the church members, followers of the late Johane Masowe, a Zimbabwean man they consider a prophet, were quick to stress the salve religion had provided during the country’s difficult times.
They said their day of prayer typically started at 9am and went on until 3pm, but that often they carried on into the evening. On Sunday morning, they said, they had sung renditions of the famed African independence anthem “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika”, or “Lord Bless Africa”.
Many of the group were migrants from neighbouring Zimbabwe who had travelled to South Africa for work and found hard-scrabble jobs as tailors or as domestic workers in homes in Soweto or other nearby townships. Most appeared to have family members still living in Zimbabwe.
“I came here in 2008 because my husband died and I had to bring up three children,” said Abigail Dza Dza, as a dark sky overhead threatened rain. “I felt welcome when I came here.”
Doris Mnube, 42, had come in the mid-1990s, a time when she could not find any work in Zimbabwe. She said her mother, two sisters and a son were still there. She said Mr Mandela was responsible for helping provide schools for the migrants and for giving them pensions. “He accepted us. He gave us education,” she said.
A third woman in the group, younger than the others she was sitting with, declared: “We are living here in peace because of Mandela. But now we are worrying we might get sent back.”
The memorial service for Mr Mandela is to take place tomorrow at the FNB Stadium, also known as Soccer City, located close to where the groups had gathered. The service is due to start at 11am but gates will open five hours before.
While the stadium has a capacity of just under 95,000, the authorities are to set up screens and overflow venues for those unable to get inside. Buses will bring in people from across the country.
Hapson Mazoyo, the priest, said he doubted he would be attending the service. But he said he expected many of those gathered in prayer on the hillside may do. He said: “It will be for ordinary people.”