South Africans of all races and religions have united in an outpouring of prayer and song for their beloved Nelson Mandela, 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 anti-apartheid icon.
From a Methodist Church in Johannesburg, President Jacob Zuma implored this still deeply scarred nation to keep lit Mandela’s flame of freedom and justice.
“He preached and practised reconciliation, to make those who had been fighting forgive one another and become one nation,” Zuma told a mixed race congregation of more than 1000 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 deep into their sadness.
Sunday marked the formal start of a week-long 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.
The extraordinary depth and breadth of Mandela’s appeal will see heads of state of every political stripe rub shoulders with leaders across the religious spectrum along with marquee names from the worlds of sports, art and entertainment during the funeral events.
US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle will be among 80,000 people attending a vast memorial service on Tuesday in the Soweto sports stadium that hosted the 2010 World Cup final.
The commemorations will culminate with Mandela’s burial on December 15 in Qunu – the rural village where he spent his early childhood.
Since Mandela died late on Thursday, aged 95, large crowds have gathered day and night outside his Johannesburg residence.
On Saturday 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.
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.