Thousands of South Africans bid farewell to 'tata' Mandela

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PRETORIA, South Africa -- Black and white, old and young, South Africans by the thousands paid final tribute Wednesday to their beloved Nelson Mandela. In silence or murmuring, they filed past the coffin. Some glanced back, as if clinging to the sight, a moment in history.

One man raised his fist, the potent gesture of the struggle against white rule that Mr. Mandela led from prison. A woman fainted on the steps, and was helped into a wheelchair.

They had only a few seconds to look at the man many called "tata" -- father in his native Xhosa -- his face and upper body visible through a clear bubble atop the casket, dressed in a black-and-yellow shirt of the kind he favored as a statesman.

"I wish I can say to him, 'Wake up and don't leave us,' " teacher Mary Kgobe, 52, said after viewing the casket at the century-old Union Buildings, a sandstone government complex overlooking the capital, Pretoria, that was once the seat of white power.

She was among the multitude who endured hours in the sun to say goodbye to the man they call their father, liberator and peacemaker, who died Dec. 5 at 95.

Long lines of mourners snaked through the capital for a glimpse of Mr. Mandela's body as it lay in state for three days -- an image reminiscent of the miles-long queues of voters who waited patiently to cast their ballots during South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994 that saw Mr. Mandela become the country's first black president.

The orderly proceedings were in contrast to Tuesday's large-scale celebration that went somewhat awry after public transportation breakdowns hindered mourners reaching the soccer stadium, a faulty audio system made speeches inaudible for many, police failed to search the first crowd wave rushing in as gates opened; and even an alleged impostor, acting as an interpreter for the deaf, spouted nonsense rather than translating speeches by President Barack Obama and other statesmen.

That last incident, which outraged deaf people and sign-language interpreters watching the service broadcast around the globe, raised questions of how the unidentified man managed to crash a supposedly secure event attended by scores of heads of state. The man, who stood about a yard from Mr. Obama and other leaders, "was moving his hands around, but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for," Bruno Druchen, national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, said in an interview Wednesday.

The man also used virtually no facial expressions to convey the often-emotional speeches, an absolute must for sign-language interpreters, said Ingrid Parkin, principal of the St. Vincent School for the Deaf in Johannesburg.

Four experts, including Mr. Druchen and Ms. Parkin, said the man was not signing in South African or American sign languages, and could not have been signing in any other known sign language, because there was no structure to his arm and hand movements. South African sign language covers all of the country's 11 official languages, according to Mr. Druchen's federation.

Collins Chabane, one of South Africa's two presidency ministers, said the government is investigating "alleged incorrect use of sign language at the National Memorial Service," but has not finished because it has been overwhelmed with organizing the public viewing of Mr. Mandela's body in Pretoria and his funeral Sunday. He did not identify the man, but said the "government will report publicly on any information it may establish."

U.S. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said in response to an emailed query that "agreed-upon security measures between the U.S. Secret Service and South African government security officials were in place" during the service. "Program items such as stage participants or sign-language interpreters were the responsibility of the host organizing committee," he added.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: "It's a shame that ... a service that was dedicated to honoring the life and celebrating the legacy of one of the great leaders of the 20th century has gotten distracted by this and a couple of other issues that are far less important than the legacy of Nelson Mandela."

The half-empty stands at the stadium event led some to think the public had become apathetic, but the overwhelming response at Wednesday's viewing showed South Africans' thirst for a simple way to say goodbye.

Mr. Mandela was lying in state Wednesday in the same hilltop building where he made a stirring inaugural address that marked the birth of South Africa's democracy, an irony not lost on the throngs. "It's amazing to think that 19 years ago he was inaugurated there, and now he's lying there," said viewer Paul Letageng. "If he was not here, we would not have had peace in South Africa."

The mourners were joined by world leaders and Mandela family members, who walked silently past the casket at a special morning viewing, Mr. Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, among them.


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