Amid a solemn atmosphere, the body of Nelson Mandela lay in state Wednesday at an amphitheater in South Africa’s capital of Pretoria, the exact spot where he was sworn in as the country’s first black president in 1994, reconciling a land that had been torn by racial divisions for centuries.
Mandela’s coffin, draped in a South African flag, was transported by a hearse from a military hospital through the streets of Pretoria and then to the hilltop Union Buildings, the seat of South Africa’s presidency.
South Africans lined the route, many holding posters of Mandela, as the cortege traveled past the courthouse — now known as the Palace of Justice — where he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for sabotage. Mandela ultimately served 27 years before his release in 1990.
A military honor guard wearing black armbands delivered the coffin to Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela. It was then placed inside a protective marquee built for the occasion at the outdoor amphitheater overlooking the sprawling grounds of the Union Buildings.
Family members, government officials and foreign leaders paid their respects Wednesday morning. Mandela’s former wife Winnie wiped away tears after she passed through the marquee and walked away.
Among the mourners was F.W. de Klerk, the country’s last white president and the man who freed Mandela and then lost his job to Mandela four years later in the country’s first democratic elections.
The amphitheater was being opened to the public in the afternoon. South Africans began lining up at 5 a.m. for one last chance to see Mandela.
The mood was formal and somber, in contrast with the spirited and joyous memorial service on Tuesday, when tens of thousands of South Africans and dozens of foreign leaders gathered at the country’s largest soccer stadium in the black township of Soweto. Mandela, 95, died last Thursday after a long illness.
South Africa’s white leaders ruled from the Union Buildings for decades before Mandela’s extraordinary journey that took him from a rural village to anti-apartheid leader to the world’s most famous prisoner to president of a democratic South Africa.
Mandela will lie in state through Friday in an open coffin sheathed in a glass cover. He will then be transported to his home village of Qunu in the southeastern part of the country, where he will be buried in an ancestral grave on Sunday morning.
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