PRETORIA, South Africa – An estimated 100,000 South Africans lined up in Pretoria to view Nelson Mandela in his casket but about a third of the overwhelming crowd was sent away without being able to file past the bier.
Many of the frustrated mourners fought back tears of disappointment on the third and last day of the revered leader’s lying in state. Mandela’s coffin was taken away by a military guard to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. The anti-apartheid icon will be flown Saturday to his rural home in Qunu, Eastern Cape where he will be buried on Sunday.
Hundreds of people cheered and some burst into song when Mandela’s cortege left Pretoria’s Union Buildings, the seat of government, for the last time Friday evening.
“It was amazing,” said Keneilwe Mohapi, who stood with her mother as the impressive motorcade went by. “We couldn’t ask for a more fitting end. It’s an honor to say goodbye to him properly.”
“We’re mourning, but I’m grateful,” the 27-year-old said. “He changed my life.”
Many waited under a hot sun for four or five hours in a line snaking through an open field to buses that would take the lucky ones to see Mandela.
“I feel like I’ve lost a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said 22-year-old student Caiphus Ramushun. “I’m frustrated because I got so close,” he added, saying he was only about 100 people away from making it to the buildings.
“I spent eight hours in line. I came so close to going on. Instead I was turned away,” he said.
Mandela’s body was on display since Wednesday, with larger and larger crowds trying to view it each day. About 70,000 mourners were able to file past the casket Friday, government spokeswoman Phumla Williams said.
But Friday’s surge overwhelmed planners, who were not able to move people through security checkpoints and onto buses quickly enough.
Officials were handing out water to those waiting. The area where people stood in line was so crowded that it became a city-within-a-city: Entrepreneurs set up barbecue grills and sold Mandela memorabilia, including T-shirts imprinted with his smiling face and words: “May he rest in peace.”
Shortly before Mandela’s casket was removed and taken to a nearby military hospital, a crowd of several hundred mourners eager to pay their last respects broke through police barriers and raced up toward the Union Buildings.
An AP reporter witnessed the crowd storming up the hill toward Mandela’s casket and police then chased them over several hundred meters before being able to stop them.
The people were joyous as they raced toward temporary structure where Mandela was on view in his coffin. No violence erupted as police peacefully brought them back in line, according to the reporter.
Earlier in the day people also pushed open a police gate. Some fell to the ground as the crowd surged, and several were slightly injured. The government closed all nearby parking facilities around midday because of the huge crowds.
Many people said they were bitterly upset and some said the government had done a poor planning job.
“I don’t think this government understands what Mandela means to so many people,” said Ali Ndlovu, a 47-year-old telecoms technician who stood in line for several hours before being turned back. “If they understood, they would have given us more than three days. I’m just very disappointed.”
Some of those who succeeded in viewing the body wept at the sight of the revered anti-apartheid leader in a coffin. A clear bubble allowed people to see his upper body with white hair, a gaunt face and dressed in one of his trademark colorful shirts.
Mourner Elizabeth Leening said she got up at 3 a.m. and headed toward the Union Buildings an hour later to pay her last respects to Mandela.
“We have been standing in the queue now for four hours to see Madiba,” she said, using Mandela’s clan name as a sign of affection and respect.
Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years during white rule and later became South Africa’s first black president, died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home after a long illness at the age of 95. He will be buried in a state funeral in his remote childhood home, Qunu, in the southeast of the country on Sunday.
Britain’s Prince Charles, some African leaders and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey are expected to attend the burial with Mandela family members and South African leaders.