Nelson Mandela’s tearful widow was among scores of mourners who paid their last respects before his open casket, as the much-loved leader lay in state.
Graca Machel, clad in a black head-dress with her eyes shielded by sun-glasses, placed both hands on the raised coffin before turning away disconsolate.
At each end of the coffin stood two navy officers, 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.
Among the dignitaries were Mandela’s former political foe FW de Klerk, his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and U2 star Bono.
The rock star and activist 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 the 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 guard of honour.
Some cheered but many were tearful, aware that Mandela’s death opened a new chapter.
“It feels like the end of an era,” said government employee Faaiqia Hartley, 27. “All the opportunities I’ve had growing up that my parents never had, Madiba gave me that.”
“He gave all of us an opportunity to be the best we could be.”
At Union Buildings, the seat of South African government, the casket was unloaded by eight pallbearers representing the branches of the armed forces in full uniform.
From there it was carried up the steps toward the towering acropolis of beige freestone, where nearly two decades ago Mandela was sworn in as the country’s first black president, signifying the rebirth of the nation.
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