Nina Saunders could have paid her respects to Nelson Mandela at his home in an affluent Johannesburg suburb. Instead she took her family on a journey into the sprawling black township of Soweto.
It was her tribute to the liberation hero whose victory allowed her family to exist: a white woman with a black husband and multiracial children, a family that would have been banned by apartheid.
“We would not have been able to live together if it was not for Mandela,” she said, her voice choking with emotion. “It would not have been allowed. So we have a lot to be grateful for.”
In a joyous celebration of Mr. Mandela’s astonishing life and achievements, thousands of people flocked on Friday to the small brick “matchbox” house on Vilakazi Street in Soweto, now a museum, where Mr. Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962 at a time of repression, police raids and fire-bombings.
The government announced on Friday that Mr. Mandela will be laid to rest on Dec. 15 in his childhood village of Qunu, in the beautiful rolling hills of the Eastern Cape. A huge memorial service will be held on Tuesday at a 95,000-seat soccer stadium on the edge of Johannesburg. Then his body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, so that hundreds of thousands of South Africans can bid him farewell before the state funeral.
Soweto, one of the birthplaces of anti-apartheid rebellion in the 1970s, was the scene of exuberant singing and dancing on Friday as South Africans of all races and ages gathered at many sites connected to Mr. Mandela around the country. Under the pass laws of apartheid, blacks were confined to townships like Soweto, and the only whites who visited the townships were the police.
“The freedom we have to come to Soweto, and the freedom people in Soweto have to go anywhere in this country – Nelson Mandela is the father of it,” Ms. Saunders said. “That’s why we decided as a family to come here. I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to Mandela.”
At the same exultant rally in Soweto, a 45-year-old man named Lungisani Chamane talked about how much has changed in South Africa’s townships because of Mr. Mandela. He remembered how he was clubbed and kicked by apartheid police as a child in Soweto in the 1970s. He remembered how white people would openly insult him in racist terms, and he remembered how the apartheid government denounced Mr. Mandela as a terrorist.
“He taught us peace and love,” Mr. Chamane said. “He was like Jesus, crucified for our sins. But through him, apartheid was finished, even though we are still poor today.”
Across the country, thousands of South Africans honoured their first democratic president on Friday, lighting candles and laying flowers at his home in Johannesburg, at a Mandela statue in the wealthy suburb of Sandton, on the street outside City Hall in Cape Town where he gave his first speech after 27 years of imprisonment, and in other towns and cities across the country.
South Africa is gathering its strength for the unprecedented marathon of public mourning, memorials, tributes and state funeral for Mr. Mandela that will dominate much of the global spotlight for the next 10 days.
The government has had years to prepare, but the pressures of national grief and hordes of visiting world leaders will be a strain on a country that lacks the resources of wealthier nations.
The biggest memorial will be on Tuesday at the stadium known as Soccer City, on the outskirts of Johannesburg and Soweto. The stadium, the largest in Africa, was the site of the opening and closing matches of the World Cup in 2010.
Hundreds of world leaders and global celebrities will attend the memorial at the stadium, while a smaller elite will later attend the funeral in his village.
Retired archbishop Desmond Tutu gave the most poignant tribute of the day on Friday, speaking slowly to a hushed audience of journalists and coming close to tears as he remembered Mr. Mandela. He praised him as a rare political leader who admitted errors and fought for reconciliation.
“Let us reach out to one another and let Madiba’s dream be our dream,” Mr. Tutu said, using the affectionate clan name for Mr. Mandela.
The government is calling for a day of prayer and reflection on Sunday at churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and homes, followed by a week of national mourning.
“Long live Madiba,” said President Jacob Zuma as he revealed the funeral and memorial plans on national television.
“We will always love Madiba for teaching us that it is possible to overcome hatred and anger to build a new society,” Mr. Zuma said. He said the former president’s life was “a life well-lived, a life we must emulate for the benefit of our country and Africa.”