Mourners turned away as crowds swell to bid final farewell to Mandela

Admirers come from around the world to see the body of
anti-apartheid leader as it lies in state

People wait in a bus line to pay their respects Friday to former South African President Nelson Mandela in Pretoria.
Kevin Coombs/Reuters

The body of Nelson Mandela lay in state for a final day Friday, with thousands of mourners from around South Africa and the world lining up to bid farewell to the anti-apartheid leader. 

Mandela's body has been on public view in a glass-topped coffin in Pretoria since Wednesday, ahead of his transfer Saturday to his boyhood home of Qunu in eastern South Africa for burial Sunday.

The turnout Friday far surpassed the number of people who came to see the coffin the previous two days. Some admirers were turned away while authorities struggled to contain the crowd. 

In the huge lines filing past Mandela's coffin the last three days were people who had flown halfway around the world to pay their respects. Reflecting the extraordinary reach of his influence and popularity, they came from Africa, Europe, North America and Asia.

Long lines have deterred or discouraged some, but for those who managed to see the coffin, the emotional impact was profound.

"It's truly a moving event," said Sakib Khan, 41, a British national who has lived in South Africa since 2002.

"As you walk past his body, you're overcome with emotion," Khan said.

Linda Koch, 66, flew from the United States with a friend especially to say a personal farewell to South Africa's first black president.

"I have always admired Mandela for bringing his people together," she said after seeing his body.

"He has shown his leadership, and South Africa as a country is so much better as a result of what he did," said Koch, a retired professor. “I spent 40 years telling my students why it is important to cherish differences, so it was logical to come." 

Koch and her friend decided on the spur of the moment to make the journey after the announcement of Mandela’s death on Dec. 5. They flew through Europe, then rushed to Pretoria on Wednesday after arriving in the morning.

Mandela spent 27 years in jail for opposing white-minority apartheid rule.

His subsequent message of forgiveness and equality earned him worldwide respect, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize two decades ago.

Wang Luanluan, 29, from China, waited in line with friends from 3 a.m. Friday, after they were turned away the day before.

"We were turned back yesterday, so this morning we got up at 2 o'clock,” said Wang. "This is our last chance."

In some cases, the lines of admirers overwhelmed authorities.

There were moments of tension as police tried to turn mourners away. At the Pretoria Showgrounds, one of the park-and-ride gathering points, the crowd broke through the metal entrance gate when officers tried to stop people coming through. Some fell to the ground, and hundreds streamed past before order was restored.

The crush of people wanting to see Mandela's body in the Union Buildings in the capital, Pretoria, was so great that the government asked others to stay away from the park-and-ride facilities set up to take mourners to the area.

"We cannot guarantee that every person who is presently in the queues at the various centers will be given access to the Union Buildings," the government said in a statement.

At least 50,000 people were waiting at park-and-ride points by Friday morning.

"I am really angry," said Ilse Steyn of Pretoria. "We tried for two days now to see Mr. Mandela and thank him for changing this country and bringing us together. Now we have to go home with heavy hearts."

Winding queues snaked for miles from the government site, perched on a hill overlooking the city, well into the heart of Pretoria.

"I don't mind waiting — today is the last day and I must say thank you. I am who I am and where I am because of this man," said Johannesburg resident Elsie Nkuna, who said she had taken two days off from work to see Mandela.

Filing past the coffin, some pausing to bow, mourners viewed the body laid out in a green and gold batik shirt, a style that he wore and made famous. His face was visible.

On Friday, his grandchild Mandla sat beside the coffin, acknowledging mourners with smiles.

In the heat of the South African summer, army chaplains and medics handed out bottles of water and sachets of tissues.

The huge turnout surpassed that of the two previous days by far. About 21,000 people paid their last respects on Wednesday and 39,000 on Thursday, Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane told broadcaster SAfm.

"It is clear to us that we are likely to get more and more people who would like to get the opportunity to see the (former) president before he is transferred to the Eastern Cape," Chabane said.

Some people had been queuing since Thursday.

"We were hungry and thirsty and did not have money for food," said Leena Mazubiko, who had traveled from eastern Mpumalanga province. "The thought that I must be here to pay respect kept me going."

On another access road, police had to force back people trying to break through crowd barriers.
On another access road, police had to force back people trying to break through crowd barriers.
On another access road, police had to force back people trying to break through crowd barriers.


The week of mourning since Mandela's death on Dec. 5 has seen an unrivaled outpouring of emotion for the statesman and Nobel laureate, who was honored by a host of world leaders at a memorial service in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

But the homage to a man who was a global symbol of reconciliation has not been without controversy.

South African President Jacob Zuma, who is leading the national mourning ceremonies, was booed by a hostile crowd at Tuesday's memorial, a worrisome sign for the ruling African National Congress six months before elections.

There has also been a storm of outrage and questions over a sign-language interpreter accused of miming nonsense at the memorial. The signer has defended himself, saying he suffered a schizophrenic episode.

Compared with Tuesday's mass event, Sunday's state funeral at Qunu will be a small affair focusing on the family. But dignitaries, including Britain's Prince Charles and a small group of African and Caribbean leaders, will also attend.

Iranian Vice President Mohammad Shariatmadari will also be at Qunu, but former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had been expected at the funeral, will not attend, a South African Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

From the United States, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson was on the list to attend the funeral.

The Qunu event will combine military pomp with traditional burial rituals of Mandela's Xhosa clan.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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