Mandela Lies in State, and a Rainbow Nation Pays Its Respects

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Matt Dunham / AP

A rainbow forms over the Union Buildings and the statue of Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, in Pretoria, South Africa, on Dec. 12, 2013

Nelson Mandela, first President of a free South Africa, last of the great African liberators and an icon to all humanity, looks beautiful in death. He lies in a wooden casket with a glass cover over his face on the highest point in his nation’s capital, his feet to the dawn, his head to the sunset. “It seems as if he is still alive,” says Charlotte Madisha, 36. “It seems like he’s just sleeping.”

Mandela’s coffin is shielded from the sun by a giant white and wood open-sided box, hung in white, carpeted in red and lit with soft white lights. At each corner of the coffin are four stern South African sailors in navy whites. On each side is a line of slowly processing mourners. Today, the second day of Mandela’s lying in state, it stretches out of South Africa’s seat of government, the Union Buildings, down grand balustraded steps, out into the road below, down beyond the great iron gates that mark the entrance to the building’s grounds, down a long, winding hill, and out into the middle of Pretoria, the capital. It is perhaps a mile long. Many have been here under the blazing sun since dawn. Black, brown, white, yellow, in wheelchairs, in nappies, respectably middle-aged and ostentatiously young, the queue is Mandela’s ideals of a Rainbow Nation made physical and immense. “They just don’t stop coming,” says a policeman looking on. “It’ll be 100,000 people before the end of the day.”

South Africa is taking its time to mourn Mandela, and for a simple reason: so integral is Mandela to how South Africans think of themselves that many find it hard to accept that he is gone. A national memorial on Tuesday has been followed by three days of lying in state that continue until Friday, and after that will come his burial at his home in Qunu in the Eastern Cape on Sunday.

(WATCH: Mandela Deaf Interpreter: ‘I’m a Sign-Language Champ!’)

Madisha, a teacher from Mamelodi, on the outskirts of Pretoria, has come to see Mandela for a last time with a group of women from her Methodist church, all of them in their red and white church vestments. “He is like Moses, who took the Israelites out of Egypt,” she says. “In 1990, when he was freed, I was 13. We were so happy. So excited! We were never supposed to talk about Mandela or you would be arrested. And when he was released, it was a dream. A dream which came true.”

The location of Mandela’s lying in state also rights a historical South African wrong. The Union Buildings were designed 94 years ago by South Africa’s greatest architect, Herbert Baker, with the kind of racial blinkers that colored the country before Mandela’s revolution. Sited on the spot of an old Setswana court called Tshwane, after the river that flows below it, the two wings of the building are meant to symbolize the coming together of English and Afrikaner in one white “nation.” Mandela’s body now lies in the center of this arc. It has now, out of respect for the true union he created, been renamed the Nelson Mandela Amphitheater. “If it was not for him, we would be in ashes,” says Mandla Nkosi, 43, another mourner. “It’s a chance for me to come and be this close to him, to satisfy myself with closure. He is my hero. He will always be my hero.”

Mandla, like many of the mourners, takes inspiration from seeing Mandela. “If only one person can change the world like this, if every individual can do something like this, this world will be something different,” he says.

(MORE: At Mandela’s Birthplace, the Rain Falls and the Memories Follow)

Jonathan Evans, 31, who negotiates global trade deals for South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry, says he came because “he gives me hope to fight, despite all the challenges we have.” Kaylene Thaver, 17, from Benoni, outside Johannesburg, has come with a group of young Indian girls, immaculately and fashionably dressed in black, lace and gold. “For me, it was a self-defining moment,” she says. “You look at him and see this legend, the man who set us free. I think South Africa can only grow from here. Seriously, we can only go to the top from here.”

The mourners leave. Then so does Mandela, to be taken to a military hospital overnight before being returned for a final viewing tomorrow. As the sun sets, a giant rainbow appears over Pretoria.