JOHANNESBURG — South Africans on Sunday began a week of commemorations following the death of Nelson Mandela with what officials called a day of prayer and reflection, gathering in places of worship, private homes, and fields to offer spiritual homage to the man who embodied the battle against apartheid.
For the country’s politicians it was a time to urge unity and continuity after the death last Thursday of Mandela, who was 95. But for others, the eulogies were freighted with concern about the future, adding a sharper edge to their prayers for peace in the post-Mandela era.
In the vast squatter camp of Diepsloot north of central Johannesburg, where thousands of South Africans and immigrants from neighboring countries live in tin shacks with no plumbing and often no electricity, people gathered in tin-walled churches, under copses of trees, and in open fields to offer prayers for Mandela.
“Thank you, Madiba,” a group of women from Zimbabwe sang in a plaintive a cappella, in a meadow of wildflowers, using Mandela’s clan name.
“Nelson Mandela was a leader chosen by God, and now God has called him home,” said Virginia Sibanda, a 40-year-old housekeeper from Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, who has lived in Diepsloot for nearly two decades. “He was a leader not just for South Africa but for all Africans, and the world.”
About 60 world leaders, including President Obama, and other eminent persons are due to travel to South Africa this week to mark Mandela’s death.
On Tuesday, tens of thousands of South Africans and foreign dignitaries will gather for a national memorial in a World Cup soccer stadium in Johannesburg. Mandela’s body will then lie in state for three days in Pretoria at the Union Building. He is to be buried Sunday in his rural hometown of Qunu in Eastern Cape province.
Many migrants living in Diepsloot worried that Mandela’s death would leave them more vulnerable to the xenophobic attacks that have wracked the community in recent years.
With rising crime, joblessness, and deteriorating living conditions, South Africans have frequently turned on those from other countries. Mandela and his foundation had sought to reduce such violence.
“Rumors have been passing through the town that once Mandela dies we immigrants will be attacked,” said Nkosi Nkomo, the pastor of a church with a largely Zimbabwean congregation. He spent the weekend outdoors with a small group of followers, praying by a campfire shaded by trees.
“Lord, bring us peace in this land,” Nkomo said. “Let Mandela’s spirit live with us.”
In other parts of the world, too, people congregated to mark the death of a man whose long incarceration and subsequent election as South Africa’s first black president inspired a following far beyond the frontiers of his land.
At a service in London, The Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, called Mandela South Africa’s “saving grace.”
South Africa’s top central government and provincial officials, including President Jacob G. Zuma, appeared at churches and other places of worship across the country Sunday.
In Bryanston, near Johannesburg, Zuma attended a Methodist church service sitting alongside members of Mandela’s family. Mandela received his early education in Methodist schools.
“We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for,” Zuma said, urging South Africans to be guided by Mandela’s example as a foe of oppression, a fighter for freedom, and a model of forgiveness.
In St. Martin-in-the-Field church in London, Welby spoke of Mandela’s long imprisonment on Robben Island off Cape Town and of his relationship with his captors.
“Robben Island was defeated by someone who could take everything it threw at him,” the archbishop said, “and by melting courage into forgiveness, create the gold of reconciliation.”