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Farewell Mandela: 50,000 turned away

It was easy to see the thousands of people who had been turned away Friday in their bid to say farewell to Nelson Mandela — they were the ones fighting back tears of disappointment.

An estimated 100,000 South African mourners lined up in Pretoria to view Mandela who was lying in state for the third and final day, but the numbers overwhelmed officials, who had to send away about half of the crowd before the casket was to be removed in the late afternoon, according to government spokeswoman Phumla Williams.

Many waited under a hot sun for four or five hours, their line snaking through an open field and getting close to the busses that would take the lucky ones to see Mandela at the Union Buildings, the seat of the government.

It was the final opportunity for South Africans to see Mandela before his burial Sunday.

"I feel like I've lost a once in a lifetime opportunity," said 22-year-old student Caiphus Ramushun. "I'm frustrated because I got so close," he added, saying he was only about 100 people away from making it to the buildings.

"I spent eight hours in line. I came so close to going on. Instead I was turned away," he said.

About 50,000 mourners were able to file past the casket Friday, Williams said. "It's amazing that we were able to pull through this whole exercise," she said.

In one waiting area in Pretoria, however, people pushed open a police gate, shouting that they wanted to see Mandela. Some fell to the ground as the crowd surged, and several were slightly injured. The government closed nearby parking facilities around midday because of the huge crowds.

The body has been on display since Wednesday, with larger and larger crowds trying to view it each day.

The government said the viewing hours couldn't be extended past 5 p.m. because Mandela's family had requested that the body not be transported after dark.

Organizers handed out water to the crowds, and moved up elderly people and women with children to spare them a longer wait.

The surge Friday overwhelmed planners, who were not able to move people through security checkpoints and onto busses quickly enough.

Many people said they were frustrated, and some said the government had done a poor planning job since three days was not enough time to accommodate all those who wished to pay their last respects to the revered former leader.

"I don't think this government understands what Mandela means to so many people," said Ali Ndlovu, a 47-year-old telecoms technician who stood in line for several hours before being turned back because of overcrowding. "If they understood, they would have given us more than three days. I'm just very disappointed."

The area where people waited in line was so crowded that it became a city-within-a-city: Entrepreneurs set up barbecue grills and sold Mandela memorabilia, including T-shirts imprinted with his smiling face and words: "May he rest in peace."

The long, unsuccessful wait left some people woozy and unsteady.

"I've got such a headache," said Adena Kahlo, a church worker who was walking away in resignation after being told there would be no more shuttle busses available to get to the site. "I felt today was my day, I thought everyone who wanted to come would have come the first few days, but that was wrong."

Some of those who succeeded in viewing the body wept at the sight of the revered anti-apartheid leader in a coffin.

Mourner Elizabeth Leening said she got up at 3 a.m. and headed toward the Union Buildings an hour later to pay her last respects to Mandela.

"We have been standing in the queue now for four hours to see Madiba," she said, using Mandela's clan name as a sign of affection and respect.

Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years during white rule and later became president, died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home after a long illness at the age of 95. From Pretoria, his body will be flown Saturday to his rural hometown of Qunu in the south-east of the country for a state funeral service and burial on Sunday. Britain's Prince Charles and some African leaders are expected to attend the burial.

The Canadian Press


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