Officials estimate 2,000 people per hour passed Mandela's body at Union Buildings, where he was sworn in as president in 1994
Surveying the never-ending queue from his wheelchair, Elias Nyembe reminisced about the day in 1994 when he cast his vote for the first time and helped elect Nelson Mandela.
Not since that revolutionary moment two decades ago have South Africans lined up in such numbers as they did on Wednesday to view Mandela – who died last week at 95 – lying in state in the capital, Pretoria.
"People are showing patience like they did in 1994," reflected Nyembe, 47, who is unemployed. "We've come to bid farewell to our father. The old man is taking a break. He worked hard and made a lot of changes to this country."
Many in the queues that snaked through the streets of Pretoria were too young to remember apartheid and had come to see Mandela for the first and last time.
Not Nyembe. "It was terrible. Wherever you went, you had to carry your ID with you. There was a butchery where the black people had their own doors where they bought from. At the post office black people would go to the back door for service. On the trains there would be a black section and a white section. At restaurants black men would have to buy takeaways because they weren't allowed to sit."
In 1997 Nyembe was a victim of the rise in violent crime that not even then president Mandela could stanch. He was shot six times during a hijacking, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. Four of the bullets are still in his body. The gunmen were never caught.
Yet he did not lose faith in the new South Africa. "Mandela helped me stay positive," he said. "That's why I'm living my life to the fullest."
He had seen Mandela at his last public appearance, the 2010 football World Cup final, but sadness consumed him on Wednesday as he approached the half-open casket. "Only now I believe he was gone," he said. "I knew they wouldn't lie when they said he passed away but I saw the body, I know it's him. I have to accept it. I think now the old man can rest in peace."
Nyembe was among thousands of men and women of all ages who spent most of the day queuing, riding buses – a moving carnival of foot-stamping, liberation struggle songs and cries of "Viva Nelson Mandela, viva!" – queuing some more, going through security checkpoints and then queuing again, with mostly good humour and patience, though tempers frayed and several people passed out in the afternoon heat. Still, South Africa got back the mojo that had gone missing at the official memorial service 24 hours earlier. A policeman told one restless queuer: "Mandela 27 years, you one hour!"
Nezi Maqungu, 53, from East London, said the lines zigzagging through the city – a riot of colour including football shirts and African National Congress regalia – reminded her of the first democratic election but with one crucial difference: "That was exciting whereas this is sad. We can't believe he's gone. There will never be another like him."
The songs fell silent when people reached the austere amphitheatre of the Union Buildings, built in light sandstone a century ago and in the style of the ancients – the government describes it as a "modern-day acropolis" atop a hill. It was here that Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president in 1994.
A temporary structure had been erected under a white canopy with chandeliers and decorated with giant bouquets of lilies. Mandela's grandson and heir Mandla, sombre in a long black coat and black tie, stood ramrod straight with eyes fixed on the middle distance. Four junior naval officers in brilliant white uniforms stood guard with swords pointing downward.
At the centre was the casket with a glass bubble at the top revealing Mandela's familiar face and white hair, along with a characteristically vibrant shirt. Two rivers of people flowed by either side, not allowed to pause or take photographs, and not able to take their eyes off a face that so often smiled but was now stilled for ever. Some wept and some made the sign of the cross.
Officials estimated that an average of 2,000 people per hour passed the body. Among them was Gladness Nesane, 24, a healthcare technician who had waited five hours. "I felt like he's not real, like a statue inside the coffin," she said. "At least we saw the image of him. It's very sad knowing he'll never come back. He's just history and we'll never know anyone like him."
Norma Page, 57, a psychologist, said: "I'm speechless. It was a brief second, too short a moment after a long day. But it's part of walking the long walk."
Many people were turned away but will get another chance to view Mandela on Thursday and Friday before he is buried in his ancestral village of Qunu on Sunday. The casket is kept at a military hospital overnight, then transported to the Union Buildings each morning. People lined the streets as an honour guard as the black hearse passed by on Wednesday.
Graça Machel, in mourning black and now twice widowed, reportedly sobbed at the sight of Mandela in the casket. Other family members including his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela also paid their respects. Then came singer Bono, model Naomi Campbell, South African president Jacob Zuma and his Zimbabwean counterpart Robert Mugabe. FW de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, appeared to wipe away a tear as he passed the casket.
Designed by British architect Sir Herbert Baker, the Union Buildings are redolent of South Africa's colonial past, their name referring to the union of British and Boers. Just below the amphitheatre a bronze sculpture of a horse and two men commemorates the first world war, while two vintage artillery guns point to the horizon. Elsewhere a bronze "1914-1918 roll of honour" begins with the names Acton, Adams, Adams, Adkins, Alen-Mahon, Allen, Anderson, Andrews, Antill, Archer and Arnold.
But perhaps this setting was not entirely inappropriate for Mandela, a self-confessed anglophile who received a British education and, as Barack Obama has reminded mourners, was born during the first world war.
Next week the Union Buildings will mark their centenary – by unveiling a statue of Mandela.
- Thousands queue to say goodbye to Nelson Mandela
- Nelson Mandela’s body arrives in Pretoria
- Thousands of South Africans line up to see Mandela lie in state