SOWETO (AFP) – “Welcome. You are all welcome!” blared the loudspeaker as the train door opened, disgorging hundreds of mourners onto the platfom.
“Viva Tata Madiba, Viva!” the new arrivals shouted back, as they began chanting and singing in a spontaneous celebration of grief and pride.
From the station they walked, jogged and sang their way in light rain towards the Soweto stadium to join in a mass remembrance for Tata (Father) Nelson Mandela, their saviour president whose courage and fortitude broke the back of the hated apartheid system.
They began gathering before daybreak, desperate to secure one of the precious first-comer tickets that would allow them to join nearly 100 heads of state and government in paying tribute to Mandela’s life and legacy.
Despite the profound sense of national sorrow triggered by Mandela’s death last Thursday, the mood was upbeat, with people determined to celebrate the memory of one of the 20th century’s towering political figures.
“This is once in your life. This is history,” said Noma Kova, 36. “I didn’t want to watch this on TV,” she said.
Only 80,000 were to be allowed inside the stadium, with others forced to watch at home or on giant screens set up in three “overflow” stadiums in Johannesburg with a combined capacity of 120,000.
Security was tight around the venue, with military helicopters flying overhead, and newly-recruited marshals in bright jackets helping police keep the crowds moving.
Many were wrapped in the South African flag or yellow-green coloured shawls printed with the slogan “Mandela Forever,” and portraits of their hero.
When the gates opened, they rushed in to the stadiums, searching for the best vantage point on the sloped terracing overlooking the field.
As the stands filled up, the physical structure seemed to undulate as the crowd bobbed and danced en masse, like a giant, confused Mexican wave.
A central stage where, later in the day, speakers including the US and Cuban presidents were to address millions watching around the world, appeared to be protected by a glass shield.
Some 70 kilometers away at the Waterkloof air force base, journalists watched as plane after plane swooped down bringing in the world leaders, from China, Germany, Brazil and every corner of the globe.
Thousands of mourners had used a free train service from central Johannesburg to reach the stadium, mixing excitedly together on the platform and in the compartments — men and women of all ages and races.
“I am going to the memorial to be closer to the national mood, to come out of my bubble,” said white Afrikaans speaker Marcel Boezaart, 26.
Nigerian Fola Folowosele, 27, had been visiting friends in South Africa when the news that Mandela had died broke last Thursday.
For Folowosele, there was never any doubt in his mind that he would stay to be part of the week-long state funeral that followed.
“He’s perhaps Africa’s greatest son, and this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.
Some in the crowd recalled treasured moments when they had seen or, in some cases, even met or spoken to the man they had come to remember.
“When you say Mandela, you are talking South Africa,” said Julenda Ntlekoana, a nurse who met Mandela when he visited her Johannesburg hospital after he retired from office.