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South Africans of all races, backgrounds pray for Mandela

| Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, 6:06 p.m.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In death, Nelson Mandela unified South Africans of all races and backgrounds on Sunday in a day of prayer for the global statesman — from a vaulted cathedral with hymns and incense to a rural, hilltop church with goat-skin drums and barefoot dancing.

Mandela was remembered in old bedrocks of resistance to white domination as well as former bastions of loyalty to apartheid.

“May his long walk to freedom be enjoyed and realized in our time by all of us,” worshippers said in a prayer in the majestic St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town, where the first white settlers arrived centuries ago aboard European ships.

South Africa's reflection on Mandela's astonishing life was a prelude to a memorial in a Johannesburg stadium on Tuesday that will draw world leaders and luminaries. They will gather to mourn, but also to salute the achievements of the prisoner who became president and an emblem of humanity's best instincts.

The extended farewell — a bittersweet mix of grief and celebration — will end on Dec. 15, when Mandela is to be buried in his rural hometown of Qunu in Eastern Cape province.

The anti-apartheid campaigner wanted to die in those modest, traditional surroundings; instead, he died on Thursday at 95 in his home in an exclusive Johannesburg area. He was surrounded by family after months of a debilitating illness that required the constant care of a team of doctors.

Family friend Bantu Holomisa said Mandela wasn't on life support in his final hours. He appeared to be sleeping calmly, but it was obvious that he was finally succumbing, added Holomisa, who said he saw Mandela about two hours before his death.

“I've seen people who are on their last hours, and I could sense that he is now giving up,” said Holomisa, who is the leader of the United Democratic Movement in parliament.

The government and Mandela's family have revealed few details about Mandela's death. Ahmed Kathrada, who was sentenced to life in prison with Mandela in 1964, said he was informed shortly before Mandela's death that his old friend had little time left.

Kathrada said Graca Machel, Mandela's wife, conveyed the message to him through another person that Mandela “will be leaving us that night” and “the doctors have said, ‘Anytime.' ”

The death still came as a shock to many South Africans, so accustomed to the enduring presence of the monumental fighter, even when he retired from public life years ago and became increasingly frail.

“He was more than just an individual soul. He was the exposition of the African spirit of generosity,” said the Rev. Michael Weeder, dean of St. George's Cathedral.

But he cautioned that the country has so much to do.

“The strength of the new South Africa will be measured in the distance that the poor and the marginalized travel from the periphery to the center of our society,” Weeder said.

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