South Africans Line The Streets For Mandela Procession

Renee Montagne talks with Ofeibea Quist-Arcton about South Africa's 10-day goodbye to Nelson Mandela. His body will lie in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the scene of his presidential inauguration in 1994.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The people who walked in a long line past the casket of Nelson Mandela today in Pretoria, South Africa, include NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She's been covering the funeral ceremonies for the former South African president, and she's on the line. Ofeibea, what did you see?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Along with everybody else - the VIPs, the ordinary South Africans - we all filed past the mortal remains of Nelson Mandela in a dark-brown casket with brass fittings. He looks very peaceful, Steve. He's wearing one of his signature Nelson Madiba shirts - as they call them - in black and gold. And he's almost smiling - at least, that's what one lady said to me. And Steve, I've got to tell you, after the summer rains that South Africans said were showers of blessings, today outside the Union Buildings, we are seeing bright, bright sunshine; blue sky and fluffy clouds; and people are saying that's the sunshine for a farewell to Nelson Mandela, who is flanked by four naval officers dressed in white, at each corner of his casket.

INSKEEP: So it was, in effect, an open-casket ceremony, which some people have seen at viewings in the United States. Is that common in South Africa?

QUIST-ARCTON: It is, certainly amongst the black community. And it's an open casket with a glass covering Nelson Mandela - the top half of him. Yes, in African culture lying in state, sometimes with a wake, is very common so that people can say a final farewell. And that's what's been happening here. All the people I've spoken to are saying: It's so good to be here. I'll have something to tell my children, my grandchildren; that I was here to say farewell, Nelson Mandela - tata, father; thank you for what you've done for us.

INSKEEP: I wonder if that open casket, or the nature of the ceremony - the lying in state today - accounts for something of a change in mood, though. You have described to us people celebrating his life, dancing, in recent days. But today, I read an account of one person who said, I hope I don't cry.

QUIST-ARCTON: The mood is much more somber today. I think people have - not that they hadn't come to terms with the fact that they'll never see Nelson Mandela again, but I think the fact that this is the final farewell. Today, it's much quieter, much more reflective as people say: Tata, hamba kahle - go well and thank you, thank you for instilling forgiveness, respect and reconciliation in this country - which was so divided. And that should always be remembered, that South Africa has suffered.

INSKEEP: What's the significance of the location where Nelson Mandela is lying in state, the Union Buildings?

QUIST-ARCTON: This is where 19 years ago, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa's first democratically elected president as well as the first black president. So President Jacob Zuma says the amphitheater of the Union Buildings, South Africa's White House, has now been renamed the Nelson Mandela Amphitheater.

INSKEEP: The same set of buildings that was the seat of the apartheid government, no?

QUIST-ARCTON: And isn't it ironic, Steve, that this imposing building, in a sort of dark sand color, was also the headquarters of the apartheid regime that oppressed and imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years. I think that slight irony is not lost on South Africans. But they feel that they are in a better place after the leadership of Nelson Mandela and a whole generation of freedom fighters; those who struggled against apartheid, and brought liberation to this country.

INSKEEP: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is in Pretoria, South Africa. Ofeibea, thanks as always.

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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