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Chaos turns grief into anger, frustration at Mandela viewing

Tens of thousands of mourners were unable to get to view Nelson Mandela’s casket in the Union Buildings in Pretoria.


The streets of Pretoria were lined with thousands of people, waiting patiently for a brief glimpse of Nelson Mandela's flag-draped casket – and unaware that they were on entirely the wrong route.

That so many South Africans would crowd the streets with only a glimmer of a chance of seeing his casket, based mostly on rumour and hope, was poignant proof of their deep love for the 95-year-old liberation hero who died on Dec. 5.

But it was also a sign of the organizational disarray that has plagued the week of memorials for Mr. Mandela, who will be buried on Sunday in his childhood village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

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For unknown reasons, South African authorities decided to keep secret the route of Mr. Mandela's cortège on Friday evening, even though thousands of people were eager to see it. It was their final chance to bid farewell to their first democratic president before his body would be flown to his home district. They were left disappointed again.

An estimated 100,000 mourners managed to pay their respects to Mr. Mandela as he lay in state in a half-open casket at the Union Buildings in Pretoria over the past three days, including about 50,000 on Friday. But many thousands more were turned away, angry and frustrated, because of a shortage of buses and a refusal to extend the viewing hours or to allow mourners to walk in without buses.

Scuffles erupted at several places as thousands of people tried to force their way into buses or push past the police barricades. Many people had waited for two days to pay their respects to Mr. Mandela, queuing in the hot sun for up to eight hours a day, yet were unable to get a spot on the shuttle buses. Hundreds finally barged past the police in the late afternoon on Friday, but most still failed to get in.

At the viewing area in the Union Buildings, the organizational problems were obvious. There were long gaps when nobody was allowed to view the casket, despite the queues. Then suddenly the police allowed hundreds of people to enter the site, shouting at them to hurry. "Faster, faster, faster," one policeman yelled at the weary mourners, forcing them to break into a sprint.

More than 90,000 people were already queuing in the shuttle-bus parking lots by about 11 a.m. on Friday, when the government announced that it was closing the gates because the limits had been reached. Police tactical squads were summoned to control the crowds, and several clashes broke out, with minor injuries reported. "We will not allow anybody in," a policeman told the crowds on a loudspeaker. "We have enough."

Furious at the gate closings, one group of mourners marched off to the Union Buildings, dancing and singing protest songs. "We are going there," one man said. "Nobody can stop us."

Others surrounded a policeman and demanded to know why they were being turned away. "I'm so disappointed – this is my second day here," said Fikile Tshabangu, a 20-year-old university student who got up at 3:30 a.m. on Friday to join the queues. She said she had only wanted to thank Mr. Mandela for the reforms that allowed her to attend a prestigious university where blacks had been barred in the past.

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Many said they felt betrayed and cheated by the organizational chaos. They blamed the government of President Zuma, who has already faced boos and jeers at a Mandela memorial on Tuesday. "This was our only chance to see Nelson Mandela, and they won't even let us close to the Union Buildings," said Helani Chauke, an 18-year-old student. "Why not let us walk?"

Other organizational problems this week have included the hiring of an unqualified sign-language interpreter who angered deaf groups by gesticulating random gibberish at the official Mandela memorial on Tuesday. New reports on Friday said the interpreter, Thamsanqa Jantjie, had previously been charged with murder, rape, kidnapping, theft and other crimes, but some of the charges were dropped on the grounds that he was mentally unfit for trial.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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