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Thousands flock to view Nelson Mandela's casket

11:37 AM, Dec 11, 2013   |    comments
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Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison before becoming South Africa's first president from 1994 to 1999. He remains an emblem of the fight against apartheid, the country's system of racial segregation.

PRETORIA, South Africa (USA TODAY) - Thousands of people waited in long lines Wednesday to pay their respects to Nelson Mandela, whose body will lie in state here for three days.

On a warm and sunny day, many - mostly black, but some whites, too - waited for buses to take them to an amphitheater at the Union Buildings, once a symbol of the racist, white-dominated government. There, under a tent, the cherished anti-apartheid leader's body is on display ahead of his burial on Sunday.

Mutshidzi Bulannga, 15, and her brother, Muano Munyai, 17, were standing in the shade of a tree waiting for one of the buses. "This is the last time we can see one of the greatest icons in the world," Munyai says.

Bulannga says Munyai wants to become a doctor. She says she has learned enough about apartheid to know that her parents and grandparents would never have had the opportunity to study medicine.

"I wouldn't have been able to cope," she says. "(Mandela) has changed lots of things. Things here are so much easier now."

The Union Buildings, which have been described by the South African government as a "modern-day acropolis," sit atop a hill overlooking Pretoria. Mandela was sworn in as president there in 1994 and used the Union Buildings as his offices. The presidency is still located there.

President Jacob Zuma named the amphitheater after Mandela by decree Tuesday.

Family members and invited officials viewed Mandela's remains throughout morning, and the public has been allowed to file past his casket since noon local time (5 a.m. ET).

The mood in the line was more somber and serious than the festive atmosphere of Tuesday's memorial service, when tens of thousands of South Africans joined world leaders and other dignitaries for a memorial service on the outskirts of Johannesburg honoring the man President Obama eulogized as "the last great liberator of the 20th century."

In Pretoria on Wednesday, people waited patiently, many with umbrellas to shield them from the hot sun, a stark contrast to Tuesday's memorial service that saw heavy rainfall.

Kagiso Mocumi, 33, of Lanseria, a mother of two and a real estate agent, says she was there to say, "Tata I love you."

South Africans often refer to Mandela affectionately as "Tata."

"I have a lot to be grateful to him for. He gave us the freedom to dream," Mocumi says. "He made us citizens of our own land. He gave me freedom. My children are free today because of him."

Mandela stepped down from the presidency in 1999, and his last public appearance was at the World Cup in 2010. He died Thursday night at age 95.

Mandela's casket will travel to Qunu - his home village in the Eastern Cape - for his funeral, which is expected to be a more private and low-key affair.

Fannie Louren, 58 , and Andre Branders, 63, white men who grew up under apartheid, had been in line for an hour in their work uniforms and still had longer to go to see Mandela's body. They took a long lunch break from their jobs in Johannesburg, but say they had to come pay their respects.

"He was a great man," said Louren.

"There was a lot of brainwashing back then," said Branders. "I'm so thankful we got to this day and there's not brainwashing anymore."

Contributing: William Welch, William Dermody, Associated Press

Marisol Bello, USA TODAY

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