PRETORIA – Thousands of people queued on Wednesday to say goodbye to Nelson Mandela, whose body was lying in state in Pretoria in the building where the anti-apartheid hero was inaugurated in 1994 as South Africa’s first black president.
Several people fainted in the stifling heat as South Africans waited their turn to file past Mandela’s casket after family members, foreign dignitaries and celebrities paid their respects at the imposing Union Buildings, perched on a hill overlooking the city.
By afternoon the summer heat and lack of access to water and toilets caused several people to pass out and tempers to fray as people waited in line for their last chance to see the man regarded as the father of democratic South Africa.
“There’s a 5,000-strong crowd here. There’s not one mobile toilet, no water, there’s nothing for the people. People are becoming upset and frustrated,” said Ronelle Johnson-Hoskins, who had been queueing since morning.
Mourners, some carrying infants on their backs, were also turned away if they did not have an identity document, she said, something they did not know they needed.
The government said in a statement that identity documents were not required, and said the cut-off time for people hoping to view Mandela’s body had been reached by 3:30 pm (1330 GMT), meaning many hundreds of people would likely be turned away.
Any perception that the government has mismanaged the logistics of Mandela’s lying in state could further infuriate South Africans, a day after President Jacob Zuma was humiliated by boos and jeers at the memorial ceremony.
The government is also facing complaints it used a fake sign language interpreter for the memorial, who gesticulated gibberish before a global audience of millions and outraged deaf people across the world.
A spokesman said Pretoria was looking into the allegation.
Mandela’s death on Thursday at the age of 95 has brought an outpouring of grief and mourning in the country he led as president from 1994 to 1999, as well as celebration and thanksgiving for his life and achievements.
Earlier thousands of people lined the streets as the black hearse carrying Mandela’s coffin wound its way to the official seat of government from the capital’s main military hospital. The flag-draped casket was met by officers representing branches of the military.
“This is a significant moment for me and my children,” said teacher Thapelo Dlamini, 48, who had been waiting on the street for two hours with his two children to watch the cortege pass.
Among the first to file past Mandela’s casket were singer Bono, model Naomi Campbell and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, appeared to wipe away a tear as he passed the coffin.
“I want to see him. Even if I have to stand here for three hours, I want to see him. It’s my last chance,” said Habib Urehem, 66, a teacher of Islam.
The mood was more sombre than jubilant, a marked departure from Tuesday’s memorial in Soweto, where the crowd danced and sang in the rain to honour Mandela’s memory and booed and jeered Zuma.
Mandela’s death has diverted attention from corruption scandals in Zuma’s administration, but it has also underscored the gulf between South Africa’s first black president, a towering figure of the 20th century, and its fourth.
Although South Africa has been transformed since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, it remains one of the world’s most unequal societies, plagued by poverty, crime and unemployment.
Worrying sign for ANC
Although South African newspapers flayed Zuma on Wednesday, they also reprimanded the crowd for booing during the service to commemorate a man famed for his ability to reconcile and forgive former enemies.
The Star, Johannesburg’s main daily newspaper, ran “Zuma’s Humiliation” as its headline.
The Times newspaper said: “It is a pity that, on the day the world came together to pay homage to Nelson Mandela, large sections of the crowd at the official memorial service heckled and booed President Jacob Zuma.
“Not because our scandal-prone, often bumbling, president doesn’t deserve it – he manifestly does.”
The heckling of Zuma is a worrying sign for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) as it heads for an election next year. But having won nearly 66 percent of the vote in 2009, the ANC is unlikely to lose its majority.
Zuma’s five years in office have been marked by scandal, feeble economic growth and social and labour unrest.
Mandela will be buried on Sunday in Qunu, his ancestral home in the rural Eastern Cape province, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg.
The village was blanketed in thick mist on Wednesday and the heavy rain had churned up mud roads, making them difficult for vehicles to negotiate. But while the weather could cause a logistics headache for the organisers, many South Africans were smiling. Traditional lore has it that heavy rain is a blessing, a sign of an esteemed leader being welcomed into the afterlife by his ancestors.
Separately, news reports said Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Cape Town home was burgled on Tuesday, hours after he delivered the closing prayers at the memorial in Soweto. It was the second time in several months that his home has been burgled. South Africa has one of the world’s highest crime rates.