, PRETORIA, Dec 11 – Nelson Mandela’s tearful widow was among scores of mourners who paid their last respects before his open casket on Wednesday, as the much-loved leader lay in state.
Graca Machel, clad in a black head-dress with her eyes shielded by sunglasses, placed both hands on the raised coffin before turning away disconsolate.
At each end of the coffin stood two navy officers clad in white dress uniform, heads bowed, eyes closed and swords pointing downward.
Later, presidents, royalty and thousands of South Africans made their own pilgrimage.
Some stopped briefly to pray, others bowed or brushed against the rope balustrade to get a closer look at the mortal remains of a man who had earned a place in history long before his demise.
Some collapsed, felled by the weight of their grief, before being helped away by medical personnel or fellow onlookers.
A blind man with a cane passed by, helped by an aide.
“I was just feeling sad when I saw him lying there as if he can wake up. As if I can say ‘Mr Mandela, how are you?” said 44-year-old Anna Mtsoweni, who waited in line from 5am.
Among the dignitaries were Mandela’s former political foe FW de Klerk, ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and musician and activist Bono.
The Irish rocker accompanied Mandela’s long time aide-de-camp Zelda Le Grange, who appeared heartbroken and needed to be supported throughout.
Earlier a black hearse flanked by 16 motorcycle outriders had carried Mandela’s flag-draped coffin on a solemn journey through the streets of Pretoria, the South African capital.
The cortege moved briskly through streets lined with flag-waving South Africans who formed a public guard of honour.
“I never met Mandela, so this is my only chance and it’s important I pay my respects. I’m South African – I have to be here,” said 28-year-old Vaughan Motshwene.
Some cheered but many were tearful, aware that Mandela’s death on Thursday aged 95, opened a new chapter in South African history.
“It feels like the end of an era. All the opportunities I’ve had growing up that my parents never had, Madiba gave me that,” said government employee Faaiqia Hartley, 27.
“He gave all of us an opportunity to be the best we could be.”