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Throngs vie for a last look at Mandela

Hundreds of people joined hands while going up a hill to view the body of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria on Wednesday. Mourners waited for hours in lines that snaked through the city for miles to catch a final glimpse of the antiapartheid leader and first black president of South Africa.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/ AP

Hundreds of people joined hands while going up a hill to view the body of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria on Wednesday. Mourners waited for hours in lines that snaked through the city for miles to catch a final glimpse of the antiapartheid leader and first black president of South Africa.

PRETORIA, South Africa — Patience Mashele put on her black, gold, and green shirt, hat, and skirt and left before dawn. She didn’t want to be late. It was time to say goodbye.

A day after the world’s leaders, celebrities, and royalty gathered in a stadium to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela in a pomp-filled ceremony, Wednesday was the people’s turn. They came by the thousands, black and white, frail and spry, from gated golf estates and tin-shack squatter camps, to pay their final respects to the last and most beloved of a generation of leaders who liberated South Africa from apartheid.

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The lines, which snaked through the capital for miles, were reminiscent of the endless lines that South Africans endured in 1994 to vote for Mandela’s African National Congress in the nation’s first fully democratic elections. At the time, people stood in line, some miles long, to cast their ballots at the beginning of a hopeful new era. Now, they lined up to bid farewell, not just to a man, but also to the promise he represented.

“For our freedom he spent 27 years in prison,” Mashele said six hours into her sun-blasted wait. “He gave me my freedom. I can wait a little longer.”

Mandela was lying in state Wednesday in Pretoria, the seat of official power where he was sworn in 19 years ago as South Africa’s first black president.

With his head and shoulders visible under a glass cover, and his body dressed in a brown shirt, his face — unmistakable to many around the world since his release from prison in 1990 — seemed serene.

“He looked peaceful,” Louisa Mogale, 24, said after filing past the coffin. “Although he lived for 95 years and I only saw him for two seconds, I’m grateful because it’s the first time and the last time I saw him.”

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The sheer number of South Africans hoping to catch a glimpse of the body appeared to have overwhelmed authorities, with thousands lined up at screening sites around the city to board buses to the Union Buildings.

Kyle Garth, 39, from Cincinnati, said he held out little hope that the people at the back of the line would get to see Mandela. He, his South African wife, and their two children had been waiting for more than five hours and still had not made it into the tent. But his spirits were still high.

“The wait is definitely worth it to me,” Garth said. Without Mandela and the end of apartheid restrictions, his wife never could have left South Africa and they never would have met. While the day’s transportation might be disorganized, he added, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Todd Heisler/New York Times

South Africans cheered as Nelson Mandela's coffin passed through the streets of Pretoria on Wednesday.

Mandela’s body is to lie in state for three days before his funeral Sunday, the latest solemn moment in the nation’s mourning for its former president and towering moral authority. Compared with the rambunctious memorial ceremony in Soweto on Tuesday, the mood was more muted.

President Jacob Zuma was among the first mourners to view the coffin along with family members, including Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Mandela’s coffin is to be transported for three successive mornings from a military mortuary to the Union Buildings, before the body is flown to the Eastern Cape for the state funeral in Mandela’s childhood home of Qunu.

For the public, the lying-in-state was tightly controlled, with mourners shuttled in on hot and packed buses.

As Mashele, 41, waited to board a bus, she recounted the three times she had seen Mandela. The first was in 1990, after his release from prison. She had not yet been born when he was convicted of treason for his part in the armed struggle to liberate South Africa.

“I ran away from my parent’s house and went to Soweto to see him,” she said with a giggle at her youthful enthusiasm. “I knew I had to see him in flesh.”

The next time was in 1994, when she joined thousands to watch him be sworn in.

“It was everything we had dreamed of, all those years,” she said. “Our president, Nelson Mandela, at the Union Buildings. It was history.”

The last time she saw him alive was at the funeral of his son, Makgatho, who died of AIDS in 2005. She traveled to Qunu.

“It was a sorrowful day,” Mashele said. “I wanted to be there to mourn with him.”

Finally, her bus slowly rumbled toward the Union Buildings, with the leafy bowl of the capital below. Mashele said that as a child she had feared the place. But now, it is a symbol of South Africa’s democracy.

As she approached the coffin, Mashele tensed.

“I don’t know if I am ready.”

“You can do it, my sister,” a police officer said.

She filed past the coffin, which was surrounded by lilies, orchids, and a rare aloe from Mandela’s native Eastern Cape.

“Hamba Kahle,” Mashele said, wiping tears from her cheeks. The Zulu phrase, endlessly repeated in the last few days, means “go well.”

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