JOHANNESBURG: South Africans of all races and religions united in an outpouring of prayer and song for their beloved Nelson Mandela Sunday, hearing calls to keep his dream of a Rainbow Nation alive.
Churches, mosques, temples and synagogues across the country rang out with hymn and homily – a nationwide day of prayer to begin a week of remembrance for the country’s anti-apartheid icon.
In a statement, Mandela’s family implored this still deeply scarred nation, and people beyond its shores, to “keep his dream alive.”
“We know and know too well that you the people of the world will not fail Mandela,” the statement said.
From a Methodist Church in Johannesburg, President Jacob Zuma echoed that sentiment in an impassioned plea.
“He preached and practiced reconciliation, to make those who had been fighting forgive one another and become one nation,” Zuma told a mixed race congregation of more than 1,000 worshippers.
“He preached and believed in peace, that we should live in peace, that we should live in unity.”
In the congregation Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and his grandson Mandla looked on, often appearing to recede into their sadness.
Sunday marked the formal start of a weeklong state funeral for the man who forged a new multi-racial South Africa from the discredited remnants of the apartheid era he helped dismantle.
Reflecting a life that transcended race and religion, prayers were said not only in the churches of the Soweto township, but also in those of the Dutch Reformed Church – once an Afrikaner pillar of the apartheid system.
There is some concern that the loss of such a talismanic leader might expose social divisions that Mandela’s huge moral authority had kept in check.
In the Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto, parish priest Sebastian Rossouw called Mandela “a light in the darkness” and praised his capacity for “humility and forgiveness.”Inside the church, which was once used as a sanctuary by anti-apartheid activists during police raids, a single candle illuminated a portrait of Mandela with a raised-fist salute.
“He fought for us then, now he needs to rest,” said Olga Mbeke, 60, who was born in Soweto.
In Johannesburg, speaking to an exclusively white Afrikaans congregation at Melville Dutch Reformed Church, Reverend Andre Bartlett asked them to “think back to the 1990s,” when the old order was crumbling and a newly freed Mandela was preparing his successful run for the presidency.
“Remember the fears we had over what would happen to the country: Under the leadership of Mr. Mandela, none of those fears came true,” Bartlett said.
The extraordinary depth and breadth of Mandela’s appeal will see more than 50 heads of state of every political stripe rub shoulders with leaders across the religious spectrum and marquee names from the worlds of sports, art and entertainment during the funeral events.
U.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle will be among 80,000 people attending a vast memorial service Tuesday in the Soweto sports stadium that hosted the 2010 World Cup final.
The commemorations will culminate with Mandela’s burial on Dec. 15 in Qunu – the rural village where he spent his early childhood.
Since Mandela passed away late Thursday, aged 95, large crowds have gathered day and night outside his Johannesburg residence.
By night they lit candles and linked arms in silent remembrance, but then, as if to lift the mood, they burst into song danced in celebration of a life that transformed their country and inspired the world.
“To me it’s not a sad day. It’s a day of hope, for us to be able to determine the future,” said Khabile Mgangame, a salesman.
Sunday’s prayers were echoed a continent away in London, where Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, spiritual leader of the world’s 80 million Anglicans, praised Mandela for his “extraordinary” courage at a service of thanksgiving.
While Mandela’s health had been in serious decline for some time, his death still came as a shock to South Africans whose attachment to their first black president was profound and deeply personal.
As well as the steady pilgrimage to his Johannesburg residence, crowds have gathered at other sites linked to Mandela – his childhood home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, his old house in Soweto and outside Cape Town’s City Hall.
Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days from Wednesday in the amphitheater of the Union Buildings in Pretoria where was sworn in as president in 1994.
His coffin will be taken in a cortege through the streets of Pretoria each morning to allow as many people as possible to say farewell.
Among the many world leaders scheduled to attend is Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan and 12 other African leaders.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will also attend.
Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey and singer-activist Bono, as well as Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel are expected to be among the celebrity mourners.
Mandela’s fellow Nobel peace laureate, the Dalai Lama, who has twice since 2009 been denied a visa for South Africa, will not be attending, his spokesman said.