A flag-draped casket containing the body of former South African president Nelson Mandela yesterday arrived with a military honor guard for display in an amphitheater where he was sworn in 19 years ago as the nation’s first black president.
Army helicopters had been circling overhead, but then a sudden quiet fell over the amphitheater as the hearse arrived. Eight warrant officers representing the various services and divisions of the South African National Defense Force carried the casket, led by a military chaplain in a purple stole. The officers set down the coffin and removed the flag.
Motorcycle-riding police officers had escorted the hearse from a military hospital outside of Pretoria to the Union Buildings.
“I just hope I won’t cry,” said Paul Letageng, 47, an employee there. “It’s amazing to think that 19 years ago he was inaugurated there, and now he’s lying there. If he was not here we would not have had peace in South Africa.”
Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison under the white Nationalist government in 1990, appealed for forgiveness and reconciliation and became president in 1994 after the country’s first all-race democratic elections.
People lined the streets to watch the procession drive slowly to the Union Buildings. They sang old songs from the struggle against the apartheid regime and called out their farewells to Mandela, who died on Thursday last week at the age of 95. Traffic was backed up for several kilometers on a highway leading into Pretoria.
South African President Jacob Zuma named the amphitheater after Mandela by decree on Tuesday.
The Union Buildings, described by the South African government as a “modern-day acropolis,” sit atop a hill overlooking Pretoria. The architect who designed it envisioned its two wings, made of 14,100m3 of stone, representing the Afrikaans and English languages spoken in the country — but none of the land’s native languages.
Even from its inception, the building long has been considered a symbol of governance in the country and of apartheid until Mandela took office.
Mandela’s grandson Mandla and South African Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula led mourners into the viewing area.
After casket bearers left, four junior officers in white uniform from the South African navy remained to keep watch over the body, rotating position every hour.
Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days. It has a glass cover allowing mourners to look in on him one last time. Officials have banned cameras from the viewing area and people are being asked to turn off their mobile phones.
Mandela family members, his widow Graca Machel, his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Zuma all attended the viewing yesterday.
Leaders like Zuma, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and others passed by the casket in two lines.
Some made the sign of the cross, others simply spent a few moments gazing at Mandela’s face.
Former South African president F.W. de Klerk, the nation’s last white president, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, appeared to wipe away a tear as he passed the coffin.
Each day, Mandela’s coffin will be driven back to 1 Military Hospital to be held overnight.
Authorities have asked the public to line the street as an honor guard for each trip.
Mandela’s body will be flown on Saturday to Qunu, his home in the Eastern Cape Province. He is to be buried on Sunday.
Additional reporting by Reuters