South Africans crowded into churches, mosques, temples and synagogues yesterday to remember former South African president Nelson Mandela, encouraged by their president to celebrate a life that transcended race and religion.
The nationwide day of prayer marked the formal start of a week-long state funeral for the man who forged a new multi-racial South Africa from the discredited remnants of the apartheid era he helped to dismantle.
In the Regina Mundi Catholic church in the once blacks-only township of Soweto, parish priest Sebastian Rossouw called Mandela “a light in the darkness” and praised his capacity for “humility and forgiveness.”
Inside the church, once used as a sanctuary by anti-apartheid activists during police raids, a single candle illuminated a portrait of Mandela with a raised-fist salute.
“He fought for us then, now he needs to rest,” said Olga Mbeke, 60, who was born in Soweto.
The extraordinary depth and breadth of Mandela’s appeal will see heads of state of every political stripe rub shoulders with leaders across the religious spectrum and marquee names from the worlds of sports, art and entertainment during the funeral events.
US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle will be among 80,000 people attending a vast memorial service tomorrow in the Soweto sports stadium that hosted the 2010 World Cup final.
The commemorations will culminate in Mandela’s burial on Sunday in Qunu — the rural village where he spent his early childhood.
Throughout the night on Saturday, large crowds gathered outside the house in Johannesburg where South Africa’s first black president passed away late on Thursday, aged 95.
At times, they lit candles and linked arms in silent remembrance, but then, as if to lift the mood, one group or another would burst into song and the entire crowd would join in and dance in celebration of a life that transformed their country and inspired the world.
“To me, it’s not a sad day. It’s a day of hope, for us to be able to determine the future,” salesman Khabile Mgangame said.
It was a sentiment that South African President Jacob Zuma had encouraged ahead of yesterday’s day of prayer.
“We should, while mourning, also sing at the top of our voices, dance and do whatever we want to do, to celebrate the life of this outstanding revolutionary,” Zuma said.
The president attended a Methodist church in a predominantly white Johannesburg neighborhood, while former South African president Thabo Mbeki joined prayers at a synagogue in the city.
The prayers were to be echoed a continent away in London, where Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, will lead a remembrance service.
Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days from Wednesday, with his coffin taken in a cortege through the streets of Pretoria each morning to allow as many people as possible to say farewell.
One of the towering figures of the 20th century, Mandela’s reputation was truly global.
Among the many world leaders scheduled to attend the funeral are French President Francois Hollande, the British and Canadian prime ministers David Cameron and Stephen Harper, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and singer-activist Bono are expected to be among the celebrity mourners.