PRETORIA/JOHANNESBURG – A flag-draped casket containing the body of Nelson Mandela arrived with a military honor guard Wednesday for display in an amphitheater where he was sworn in 19 years ago as South Africa’s first black president.
Army helicopters had been circling overhead but then a sudden quiet fell over the amphitheater as the hearse arrived. Eight warrant officers representing the various services and divisions of the South African National Defense Force carried the casket, led by a military chaplain in a purple stole. The officers set down the coffin and removed the flag.
Motorcycle-riding police officers had escorted the hearse from a military hospital outside of Pretoria to the Union Buildings.
“I just hope I won’t cry,” said Paul Letageng, 47, an employee there. “It’s amazing to think that 19 years ago he was inaugurated there, and now he’s lying there. If he was not here we would not have had peace in South Africa.”
Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison under the white racist government in 1990, appealed for forgiveness and reconciliation and became president in 1994 after the country’s first all-race democratic elections.
People lined the streets to watch the procession drive slowly to the Union Buildings. They sang old songs from the struggle against the apartheid regime and called out their farewells to Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at the age of 95. Traffic was backed up for several kilometers on a highway leading into Pretoria.
President Jacob Zuma named the amphitheater after Mandela by decree Tuesday. The Union Buildings, described by the South African government as a “modern-day acropolis,” sit atop a hill overlooking Pretoria. The architect who designed it envisioned its two wings, made of 14,100 cu. meters of stone, representing the Afrikaans and English languages spoken in the country — but none of the land’s native languages.
Even from its inception, the building long has been considered a symbol of governance in the country — and of apartheid until Mandela took office.
Mandela’s grandson Mandla and Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula led mourners into the viewing area. After casket bearers left, four junior officers in white uniforms from the South African Navy remained to keep watch over the body, rotating position every hour.
Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days. It has a glass cover allowing mourners to look in on Mandela one last time. Officials have banned cameras from the viewing area and people are being asked to turn off their mobile phones.
Mandela family members, his wife, Graca Machel, his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Zuma all attended the viewing Wednesday. Other world leaders were expected to pass by his coffin.
Each day, Mandela’s coffin will be driven back to 1 Military Hospital to be held overnight. Authorities have asked the public to line the street as an honor guard for each trip. Mandela’s body will be flown Saturday to Qunu, his home in the Eastern Cape province. He will be buried Sunday.
On Tuesday, amid cheers and song for the prisoner who became peacemaker, U.S. President Barack Obama energized tens of thousands of spectators and nearly 100 visiting heads of state with a plea for the world to emulate Mandela, “the last great liberator of the 20th century.”
Obama’s eulogy was the rhetorical highlight of a memorial service in which South Africans celebrated Mandela’s life with singing and dancing, often during dignitaries’ speeches. They also booed their own president and were chided by a top government official who said: “Let’s not embarrass ourselves.”
Lashing rain lent a freewheeling aspect to the memorial, with people taking shelter in the stadium’s wide hallways, where they sang anti-apartheid anthems from the 1970s and 1980s. Foul weather kept many away, and the 95,000-capacity stadium was only two-thirds full.
Obama implored people to embrace Mandela’s universal message of peace and justice, comparing the South African leader to Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.
“We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama said. “But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world — you can make his life’s work your own.”
He hailed Mandela, who died Thursday at 95, as the unlikely leader of a movement that gave “potent voice to the claims of the oppressed and the moral necessity of racial justice.
“Born during World War I, far from the corridors of power, a boy raised herding cattle and tutored by the elders of his Thembu tribe, Madiba would emerge as the last great liberator of the 20th century,” Obama said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country, said he was inspired by Mandela as a student. The speech was greeted with thunderous applause, and many heads of state and other foreign dignitaries gave a standing ovation.
Obama pointed out that “around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, or how they worship, or who they love.”
Among the heads of state and government were some from countries like Cuba that don’t hold fully democratic elections. On the way to the podium, Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, underscoring a recent warming of relations between their countries.
Other attending leaders criticized for their human rights records were Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema and Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh.
In contrast to the wild applause given to Obama, South African President Jacob Zuma was booed. Many South Africans are unhappy with Zuma because of state corruption scandals, though his ruling African National Congress, once led by Mandela, remains the front-runner ahead of elections next year.