Nelson Mandela lies in state in Pretoria; throngs expected to pay respects

Story highlights

  • Mandela's widow and former wife pay their respects
  • Nelson Mandela's body will lie in state in Pretoria for three days
  • Family members and dignitaries view body, public viewing began Wednesday
  • Crowds line the procession route from Johannesburg to Pretoria

Heads bowed, solemn, they filed by.

The rich, the powerful. The famous and the family. All of them bidding goodbye to anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela on Wednesday, the first of three days his body will lie in state at the seat of South Africa's government.

First was South African President Jacob Zuma. Then came Mandela's widow, Graça Machel, and former wife Winnie Mandela, both wearing black turbans.

In near silence, dozens of family members passed by as military honor guards dressed in white flanked the coffin on each end.

There were others in Pretoria, too. Former South African leaders Thabo Mbeki and F.W. de Klerk, the country's last apartheid-era president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. U2's Bono also paused for a moment before moving on. So did Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

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The first several hours was reserved for family and dignitaries, but the public was to be allowed to file past his casket later Wednesday, as well as on Thursday and Friday. Viewing hours were expected to be limited to daylight. Long lines are expected to form early in the morning.

On Saturday, a military aircraft is to take Mandela's remains from a Pretoria airbase to Mthatha, the main town in the province of Eastern Cape.

Thousands of mourners are expected to line the streets leading from Mthatha airport to watch as the military moves Mandela's casket on a gun carriage to the remote village of Qunu, where the former leader spent his childhood.

Historic venue

The hearse carrying the casket of the former South African leader, who died last week at 95, arrived early Wednesday. It weaved through streets lined with people in Pretoria, the capital, on its way to the Union Buildings.

The somber mood Wednesday was a sharp change from the celebratory atmosphere at a memorial event on Tuesday, in Johannesburg.

"This is a very poignant moment," Khehla Shubane, who served time in prison with Mandela. "This is not the Mandela who was in control of things that were happening around him, inspiring people. This is a Mandela who's in death now."

As the body arrived, an honor guard stood at attention and a hushed crowd looked on as eight military officers, led by a chaplain, carried the coffin inside. Police helicopters hovered overhead. A South African flag hung outside at half staff.

Mandela's grandson, Mandla Mandela, and Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula led a group of mourners wearing black who walked behind the coffin.

Mandela's casket was placed under a dome, close to where, in 1994, he had taken the oath of office to become South Africa's first democratically elected president.

On that day, crowds converged around the building to witness history being made. Mandela, a former political prisoner, became South Africa's first post-apartheid black leader.

World leaders gather

The commemorative events have taken on an epic scale. Tuesday's memorial was billed as one of the largest gatherings of global leaders in recent history.

From U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuban President Raul Castro, praise for the statesman came from all sides in a four-hour memorial service at Johannesburg FNB stadium.

"We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," Obama said to cheers.

"To the people of South Africa -- people of every race and every walk of life -- the world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us," he added, calling him a "giant of history."

Rain poured throughout the service, but did little to dampen the mood.

Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was celebratory, with people dancing and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle.

Posters bearing Mandela's likeness hung around them. It was there that, 23 years earlier, Mandela had delivered his first speech after he was released from prison, hailed by supporters as the hope of a new South Africa.

Also known as Soccer City, the stadium was where Mandela made his last public appearance at the World Cup final in July 2010.

Queen Elizabeth II and four other leaders who couldn't attend

Barack Obama's speech in full