, SOWETO, Dec 10 – “Welcome. You are all welcome!” blared the loudspeaker as the train door opened, disgorging hundreds of mourners onto the platform.
“Viva Tata Madiba, Viva!” the new arrivals shouted back, as they began chanting and singing in a spontaneous celebration of grief and pride.
From the station they walked, jogged and sang their way in light rain towards the Soweto stadium to join in a mass remembrance for Tata (Father) Nelson Mandela, their saviour president whose courage and fortitude broke the back of the hated apartheid system.
They began gathering before daybreak, desperate to secure one of the precious first-comer tickets that would allow them to join nearly 100 heads of state and government in paying tribute to Mandela’s life and legacy.
Despite the profound sense of national sorrow triggered by Mandela’s death last Thursday, the mood was upbeat, with people determined to celebrate the memory of one of the 20th century’s towering political figures.
“This is once in your life. This is history,” said Noma Kova, 36. “I didn’t want to watch this on TV,” she said.
Only 80,000 were to be allowed inside the stadium, with others forced to watch at home or on giant screens set up in three “overflow” stadiums in Johannesburg with a combined capacity of 120,000.
Security was tight around the venue, with military helicopters flying overhead, and newly-recruited marshals in bright jackets helping police keep the crowds moving.
Many were wrapped in the South African flag or yellow-green coloured shawls printed with the slogan “Mandela Forever,” and portraits of their hero.
When the gates opened, they rushed in to the stadiums, searching for the best vantage point on the sloped terracing overlooking the field.