Mandela: Police struggle to hold back huge crowds

A man walks past a giant billboard bearing the face of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria. Picture: AP
A man walks past a giant billboard bearing the face of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria. Picture: AP
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TENS of thousands of mourners flocked to South Africa’s central government buildings yesterday to say a personal goodbye to anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela on the final day of his lying in state.

About 100,000 mourners paid homage to the former president over the course of the three days with more than 50,000 doing so yesterday.

Such was the crush of people wanting to see Mr Mandela’s body in the Union Buildings in the capital, Pretoria, that the government asked others to stay away from park-and-ride centres set up to take mourners to the area.

There were moments of tension as police turned people away. At the Pretoria Showgrounds, one of the park-and-ride points, the crowd broke through a metal entrance gate when officers tried to halt them.

Some fell to the ground and hundreds streamed past before order was restored. On another access road, police had to force back people trying to break through crowd barriers.

In the city, many people expressed disappointment at being prevented from filing past Mandela’s coffin. Winding queues had snaked for miles from the building where he lay well into the heart of the capital meaning thousands had no chance of seeing him.

“I am really angry. We tried for two days now to see Mr Mandela and thank him for changing this country and bringing us together. Now we have to go home with heavy hearts,” Ilse Steyn of Pretoria said.

The day ended without further incident as the body of South Africa’s first black president, who died last week aged 95, was moved by police motorcade back to the country’s main military hospital.

Today, his body will be flown to the Eastern Cape province for a funeral tomorrow at his ancestral home in Qunu, 450 miles south of Johannesburg.

Some of those who did view the body at the Union Buildings, a century-old government complex overlooking the city, wept at the sight of the revered leader in a coffin.

Elizabeth Leening said she got up at 3am yesterday and headed toward the Union Buildings an hour later to pay her respects. “We have been standing in the queue now for four hours to see Madiba,” she said, using Mr Mandela’s clan name as a sign of affection and respect.

Johannesburg resident Elsie Nkuna, who had taken two days off work to see Mr Mandela, said: “I don’t mind waiting. I must say thank you. I am who I am and where I am because of this man,”

Filing past the coffin, some pausing to bow, mourners viewed the body laid out in a green and gold batik shirt, a style he wore and had made famous. His face was visible. One of his grandchildren, Mandla, sat beside the coffin, acknowledging mourners with smiles.

In the heat of the South African summer, army chaplains and medics handed out bottles of water and sachets of tissues.

“We were hungry and thirsty and did not have money for food. The thought that I must be here to pay respect kept me going,” said Leena Mazubiko, who had travelled from eastern Mpumalanga province.

In South Africa’s small neighbour Swaziland, Africa’s last absolute monarchy, pro-democracy activists said police yesterday broke up a Mandela memorial service at a Lutheran church in the commercial capital, Manzini.

“The police stormed the venue and everyone was told to go home,” said Lucky Lukhele, spokesman for the Johannesburg-based Swaziland Solidarity Network.

The week of mourning since Mr Mandela’s death has seen an unrivalled outpouring of emotion for the statesman and Nobel peace laureate, who was honoured by a host of world leaders at a memorial service in Johannesburg on Tuesday.

But the homage to a man who was a global symbol of reconciliation has not been without controversy. South African president Jacob Zuma, who is leading the mourning, was booed by a hostile crowd at the memorial, a worrying sign for the ruling African National Congress six months before elections.

Bogus signing interpreter once face murder charge

The South African government said last night it was aware of reports that the bogus sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service once faced a murder charge and that he was being investigated, writes Claire Gardner.

How the man was selected to interpret on Tuesday, when he stood close to US president Barack Obama and other leaders, was also being studied, the government added.

Thamsanqa Jantjie outraged deaf people by making signs they said amounted to gibberish. Yesterday, a South African TV news outlet reported that Jantjie faced a murder charge a decade ago, but it is unclear if the case was concluded. He also reportedly faced other criminal charges.

Asked about a murder charge, Jantjie turned and walked away without commenting.

A United States official said “we’re all very upset” about the bogus sign language interpreter who appeared only three feet from Mr Obama at the memorial ceremony for Mr Mandela.

On Thursday, Jantjie admitted he had been violent in the past and hallucinated during the memorial service as he was gesturing incoherently.

In Washington, Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan said that vetting for criminal history and other appropriate background checks of the people on stage was the responsibility of the South Africans. He added that Secret Service agents were “always in close proximity to the president”.