PRETORIA, South Africa — Patience Mashele put on her black, gold and green shirt, hat and skirt and left her house before dawn. She didn’t want to be late. It was time to say goodbye.
A day after the world’s leaders, celebrities and royalty gathered in a stadium to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela in a pomp-filled ceremony, Wednesday was the people’s turn. They came by the thousands, black and white, frail and spry, from gated golf estates and tin-shack squatter camps, waiting to pay their final respects to the last and most beloved of a generation of leaders who liberated South Africa from apartheid.
The lines, which snaked through the capital for miles, were reminiscent of the endless queues that South Africans endured in 1994 to vote for Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress in the nation’s first fully democratic elections. At the time, people stood in line, some miles long, to cast their ballots at the beginning of a hopeful new era. Now, they lined up to bid farewell, not just to a man, but also to the promise he represented.
Mr. Mandela was lying in state on Wednesday below the sweeping facade of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of official power where he was sworn in 19 years ago as South Africa’s first black president.
With his head and shoulders visible under a glass cover, and his body dressed in a brown shirt, his face — unmistakable to many around the world since his release from prison in 1990 after 27 years incarceration — seemed serene.
“He looked peaceful,” Louisa Mogale, 24, said after filing past the coffin. “Although he lived for 95 years and I only saw him for two seconds, I’m grateful because it’s the first time and the last time I saw him.”
The sheer number of South Africans and even celebrities like Naomi Campbell hoping to catch a glimpse of the body appeared to have overwhelmed authorities, with thousands lined up at screening sites around the city to board buses to the Union Buildings. At the University of Pretoria sports facilities, a single white tent the size of a cottage was intended to serve a line that wound for hundreds of yards around the campus.
Kyle Garth, 39, from Cincinnati, Ohio, said he held out little hope that the people at the back of the line would get to see Mr. Mandela. He, his South African wife and their two children had already been waiting for over five hours and still had not made it into the tent. But his spirits were still high.
“The wait is definitely worth it to me,” Mr. Garth said. Without Mr. Mandela and the end of apartheid restrictions, he said, his wife never could have left South Africa and they never would have met. While the day’s transportation might be disorganized, he added, inching forward as the line shuffled on a bit, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Mr. Mandela’s body is to lie in state for three days before his funeral on Sunday, the latest solemn moment in the nation’s mourning for its former president and towering moral authority. Compared with the sometimes rambunctious national memorial ceremony for Mr. Mandela in Soweto on Tuesday, the mood was more muted — a moment when the reality of his death finally settled in, when celebration of his life turned to grief at the loss.
President Jacob G. Zuma was among the first mourners to view the coffin along with family members, including Mr. Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who dabbed at their eyes with white handkerchiefs.
On the esplanade of the pale stone Union Buildings, a military honor guard formed up as the coffin arrived under bright skies — a marked contrast with the rain that drenched Tuesday’s ceremony in Soweto. Mandla Mandela, Mr. Mandela’s grandson, led family mourners as a military band played the national anthem, Nkosi Sikelele Afrika, or God Bless Africa.
“As a black person, I couldn’t even have gone in there,” said Happy Sebothoma, 35, gesturing at the imposing Union Buildings and crediting Mr. Mandela with the changes that made a better life possible for him.
As mourners walked across the vast lawn of the Union Buildings, past an equestrian statue of Louis Botha, a former general and prime minister, one man pointed at the figure and shouted, “That should be Mandela!”
Mr. Mandela’s coffin is to be transported for three successive mornings from a military mortuary to the Union Buildings, before the body is flown to the Eastern Cape for the state funeral in Mr. Mandela’s childhood home of Qunu.
On its way to the Union Buildings, the hearse carrying the coffin, escorted by a phalanx of police motorcycles, went past knots of well-wishers on the streets of Pretoria. Some people bowed their heads. Others raised their fists in the militant salute Mr. Mandela favored. Women gathered to sing his praises.
As has often been the case in the days since Mr. Mandela died, the crowd was festive and joyous, singing and waving small South African flags. Then the hearse — a black Mercedes van with glass side panels — drove by, the coffin clearly visible. It was as though the procession often drew the air along with it, leaving behind silence and a sense of finality.
“I think it sunk in that he was really gone when you saw the casket inside,” said Patricia Ramahanelo, 29, who works in a government records office here. “You think he’s there but immediately when you see the coffin it’s done. He’s gone. He’s no more.”
Ms. Ramahanelo said she was not sure she could bring herself to view the body. “I never saw him alive,” she said. “I’m not sure I can see him for the first time…” Her words trailed off.
For the public, the lying-in-state was tightly controlled, with mourners shuttled in aboard hot and packed buses.
As Ms. Mashele, 41, waited to board one of those buses, she recounted the three times she had seen Mr. Mandela while he lived. The first was in 1990, after his release from prison. She had not yet been born when he was convicted of treason by the apartheid regime for his part in the armed struggle to liberate South Africa. Possessing his picture was illegal when she was growing up. No one knew what he would look like when he emerged, she said. Yet he was a touchstone in her life.
“I ran away from my parents house and went to Soweto to see him,” she said with a giggle at her youthful enthusiasm. “I knew I had to see him in flesh.”
The next time was in 1994, when she joined the throng of thousands to watch him be sworn in at the Union Buildings.
“It was everything we had dreamed of, all those years,” she said. “Our president, Nelson Mandela, at the Union Buildings. It was history.”
The last time she saw him alive was at the funeral of his son, Makgatho, who died of AIDS in 2005. She traveled to Mr. Mandela’s hometown, Qunu, to pay her respects.
“It was a sorrowful day,” Ms. Mashele said. “I wanted to be there to mourn with him.”
Finally, on Wednesday, her bus slowly rumbled toward the Union Buildings, with their sweeping, winged facade dominating the leafy bowl of the capital below. It has been the seat of power since it was built, an emblem of white authority until the country’s first democratic elections brought Mr. Mandela to power. The building has also been the target of protests, most notably in 1956 when thousands of women converged on it in a demonstration against the pass laws — a cornerstone of apartheid.
Ms. Mashele said as a child she feared the place. But now, it is a symbol of South Africa’s democracy.
As she approached the coffin, Ms. Mashele tensed.
“I don’t know if I am ready,” she whispered.
“You can do it, my sister,” a police officer said, gently urging her on.
She filed past the coffin, which was surrounded by lilies, orchids and a rare aloe from Mr. Mandela’s native Eastern Cape.
“Hamba Kahle,” Ms. Mashele said, wiping tears from her cheeks. The Zulu phrase, endlessly repeated in the last few days, means “go well.”
Lydia Polgreen and Nicholas Kulish reported from Pretoria, South Africa, and Alan Cowell from London.