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

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 - 3:36am

A hush fell over South Africa's seat of government Wednesday morning as the flag-draped coffin containing the body of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela was carried inside and placed under a dome.

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

Mandela's body will lie in state through Friday in the buildings, where thousands are expected to pay their respects in the coming days.

The somber mood Wednesday was a sharp change from the celebratory atmosphere at a huge memorial event for him a day earlier 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."

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 small group of mourners wearing black who walked behind the coffin.

Historic venue

Mandela's casket was placed under a dome, very close to the place where he took the oath of office to become South Africa's first democratically elected president on May 10, 1994.

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

Now, crowds will gather there solemnly to bid him farewell.

The first day will be reserved for family and dignitaries. The public will be allowed to file past his casket on Thursday and Friday. Viewing hours are expected to be limited to daylight. Long lines are expected to form from the very early hours of the morning.

On Saturday, events will shift south. A military aircraft will 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 from Mthatha airport to watch as the military transports Mandela's casket on a gun carriage to the remote village of Qunu, where the former leader spent his childhood years.

World leaders gather

The commemorative events have already taken on an epic scale. The massive memorial on Tuesday for Mandela 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 came from all sides in a four-hour memorial service at Johannesburg FNB stadium for the revered statesman.

"We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again," Obama said in a speech to roaring 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 said, calling him a "giant of history."

Gray skies and pouring rain throughout the service did little to dampen the mood.

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

Huge poster pictures of Mandela hung around them. In that same place 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.


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