Pretoria — They came as early as 6 a.m., wearing Nelson Mandela T-shirts and business suits, waving South African flags and raising umbrellas to block out the blazing sun.
They were young and old, domestic workers and bankers, teachers and marketing executives, a cross-section of races in a country known as the Rainbow Nation.
And they all had one goal: to get to the front of a massive line of thousands that snaked around the campus of the University of Pretoria, through a security tent and onto a bus to take them to say a last goodbye, and thank you, to the man they call Madiba — whose body is lying in state at the Union Buildings through Friday.
“We are here in appreciation of all he had to sacrifice for us to be where we are today,” said Thulane Ncobela, a 50-year old marketing executive from Johannesburg. “We never thought we’d be free, but he freed us.”
Ncobela and many thousands more waited…and waited, patiently as sweat beaded on their foreheads and the line crawled forward. And they talked with each other, strangers trying to put their brains together to calculate how long it would take to get to the front, sharing stories of life under apartheid, or discussing what they might say to Mandela when they saw his body.
Some left the line to forage for food and drink. Imraan Ismail, a 44-year-old financial services strategist from Johannesburg, returned after a prolonged absence with his arms full of soda and chips, which he distributed to people he had just met.
As Maud Williams, 68, a teacher from Pretoria, waited, she recalled having to apply for a special permit from the government to go see The Nutcracker when she was growing up in Cape Town. “My biggest thank you to Mandela is he’s given every single child in South Africa a chance to become what they want to be,” she said.
Gerry Masters, 48, talked of how his family was forcibly removed from District Six, a multi-racial area of Cape Town that was bulldozed by the apartheid government, and relocated to Athlone, a township reserved for “Coloureds” under the notorious Group Areas Act.
And Neo Rampa, 38, a banker, thought of the brutal police raids that too often wreaked havoc with his childhood in Soweto, where his father was an African National Congress activist. “When I was still in primary school, we couldn’t sleep at night, we had to stay on guard,” he said. “The military came in one night and kicked our door down and took my father with them.”
All that changed thanks to Mandela, according to Rampa. “Our life is much better,” he said. “The responsibility is on us now to make it even better for future generations.”
As the day grew hotter, the front of the line remained far off for thousands, desperate to thank Mandela for his sacrifice, for their freedom.
“I’m going to say ‘Madiba, Yem-yem, Ngqolomsila, phumla ngoxolo,’ or ‘Mandela rest in peace,’ said Qamani Doko, 28, a student at the University of Pretoria. “I will say thank you for everything you have done for us,” said Grace Ngqunge, 57, a domestic worker originally from the Eastern Cape. “We’ll think of you all the time.”
Ultimately, Doko, Ngqunge and throngs of others did not get to say their last goodbyes to Mandela. Unable to accommodate the crowd, police shut the line down at 3 p.m., leaving thousands bitterly disappointed.
Almost instantaneously, the crowd began to dance -- toyi toyi -- singing the songs and dancing the dances that gave expression to the anti-apartheid movement. They praised Mandela as one of a kind and rushed towards the security tent, singing, “We are going, we are going to the Union Buildings,” as they stomped their feet and waved their arms.
As they sang, Angie Muller, a 53-year-old receptionist from Pretoria who had arrived at 6 a.m., returned from viewing Mandela in his casket. “I said to him ‘Thank you,’” she said. “I’m now married to a man I love who is an Afrikaner. Before, I was going to jail for that.”
As the buses returned to the University of Pretoria and other locations across the city, rain began to fall and a police motorcade led a black van carrying Mandela’s South African flag-draped casket to a local military hospital.
As the cortege approached the hospital, crowds lined the sides of the road to welcome it, singing in praise of Mandela, and a double rainbow arched perfectly through the sky. The vehicles drove under the rainbow and turned right into the hospital.