World leaders bowed and prayed on Wednesday before the flag-draped casket containing the body of Nelson Mandela, having a final look at the anti-apartheid icon in the amphitheatre where he was sworn in 19 years earlier as South Africa’s first black president.

Some made the sign of the cross others simply spent a few moments gazing at Mandela’s face through a glass bubble atop the coffin at the Union Buildings, the government offices in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria.

Leaders like Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, South African President Jacob Zuma and others passed by the casket in two lines. Four junior naval officers in white uniforms kept watch. Celebrities like singer Bono of the band U2 also paid their respects. So did F.W. de Klerk, the last president of white rule who shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for ending the apartheid era.

“My thought now is that I hope that his focus on lasting reconciliation will live and bloom in South Africa,” de Klerk later said.

Mandela’s widow Graca Machel, his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and other family members also viewed his body.

Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison under the white racist government in 1990, appealed for forgiveness and reconciliation and became president in 1994 after the country’s first all-race democratic elections. He gave his inaugural address from the amphitheatre, which Mr. Zuma named after him by decree.

Mandela said at his inauguration- “Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.”

On Wednesday morning, motorcycle-riding police officers escorted the hearse from a military hospital outside of Pretoria to the Union Buildings. People lined the streets to watch the procession, singing old songs from the struggle against the apartheid regime and calling out their farewells to Mandela, who died December 5 at the age of 95. Police blocked traffic, backing up cars for several kilometres on a highway leading into Pretoria.

Officials have banned cameras from the viewing area and asked people to turn off their mobile phones.

Mr. Mandela’s body will lie in state for three days at the Union Buildings, which the South African government describes as a “modern-day acropolis” atop a hill overlooking Pretoria. The architect who designed it envisioned its two wings, made of half a million cubic feet (14,100 cubic meters) of stone, representing the Afrikaans and English languages spoken in the country but none of the land’s native languages.

Mandela’s body will be flown on Saturday to Qunu, his home in the Eastern Cape Province, and will be buried Sunday.

More In: World | International | News