South Africans of all races flocked to houses of worship yesterday for a national day of prayer and reflection to honour Nelson Mandela as a large contingent of foreign dignitaries, including royalty, begin arriving in the country to pay their final respects to the liberation-struggle icon.
The government said yesterday that 53 heads of state and government, as well as a broad range of eminent persons had confirmed that they would be attending a national memorial service and state funeral for the country's first black and democratically elected president. The memorial service is expected to be one of the biggest in modern times.
Hundreds attended the Regina Mundi Church that was at the epicentre of the Soweto township uprising in 1976 against white rule. The Rev Sebastian J. Rossouw described Mandela as "moonlight," saying he offered a guiding light for South Africa. Hundreds of people attended the Mass.
"Madiba did not doubt the light," Rossouw said, referring to Mandela by his clan name. "He paved the way for a better future, but he cannot do it alone."
During the service, worshippers offered special prayers for the anti-apartheid leader and lit a candle in his honour in front of the altar. Off to the side of the sanctuary was a black-and-white photo of Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95.
Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, joined one of his grandsons, Mandla Mandela, and South African President Jacob Zuma in a prayer service in a Methodist church in Johannesburg.
"We felt it important that we should have a day where all of us as South Africans can come together and pray for our first democratic president and reflect on his legacy," Zuma said.
"But it is also to pray for our nation ... to pray that we not forget some of the values he fought for."
Zuma said Mandela had forgiven even those who had kept him in prison for 27 years, and that he had opposed both white and black domination.
Inside a small, hilltop church behind Mandela's property in the eastern village of Qunu, where he will be buried next Sunday, about 50 people held a raucous, celebratory service. A man in a blue robe set the tempo by banging on a goatskin drum. Men, clapping, formed a tight huddle as mostly barefoot women danced on the cement floor in a circle around them.
Joshua Mzingelwa, the leader of Morians Episcopal Apostolic Church, delivered a loud, throaty sermon.
"There is still hope in the hardship that you are facing daily," Mzingelwa told the congregation.
In an affluent and predominantly white suburb of the capital Pretoria, parishioners prayed for Mandela at what was once a worship centre for pro-apartheid government and business leaders. They prayed in silence as a picture of Mandela was beamed onto the wall above the church's pulpit, the event starkly highlighting the enormous changes that have come to this country.
A national memorial service for the man who, as the country's first black president forged a new multiracial, democratic South Africa, will be held at a Johannesburg stadium on Tuesday.
Mandela's body will lie in state at the Union Buildings, the seat of government in Pretoria, from Wednesday to Friday.