JOHANNESBURG — South Africans flocked to houses of worship Sunday for a national day of prayer and reflection to honor Nelson Mandela, starting planned events that will culminate in what is expected to be one of the biggest funerals in modern times.
“We felt it important that we should have a day where all of us as South Africans can come together and pray for our first democratic president and reflect on his legacy,” President Jacob Zuma said at a Methodist church service in Johannesburg. “But it is also to pray for our nation ... to pray that we not forget some of the values he fought for.”
Zuma said Mandela had forgiven even those who had kept him in prison for 27 years, and that he had opposed both white and black domination.
At the famous Regina Mundi Church that was near the epicenter of the Soweto township uprising in 1976 against white rule, Father Sebastian J. Rossouw described Mandela as “moonlight,” saying he offered a guiding light for South Africa. Hundreds of people attended the mass.
“Madiba did not doubt the light,” Rossouw said. “He paved the way for a better future, but he cannot do it alone.”
During the service, worshippers offered special prayers for the anti-apartheid leader and lit a candle in his honor in front of the altar. Off to the side of the sanctuary was a black and white photo of Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95.
Ahmed Kathrada, who was sentenced to life in prison with Mandela in 1964, said he was informed shortly before Mandela’s death on Thursday night that his old friend was about to die.
Kathrada said Graca Machel, Mandela’s wife, conveyed the message to him through another person that “the doctors have said, ‘Anytime.’”
A national memorial service for the man who, as the country’s first black president, forged a new multiracial, democratic South Africa will be held at a Johannesburg stadium on Tuesday.
Mandela’s body will lie in state at the Union Buildings, the seat of government, in the nation’s capital, Pretoria, from Wednesday to Friday, followed by his funeral and burial in the village where he spent his childhood in a remote rural part of the country next Sunday.
Among those who have already indicated that they will be coming to South Africa are U.S. President Barack Obama and his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will also travel to Johannesburg for the memorial service.
Other leaders and dignitaries who have confirmed that they are coming include French President Francois Hollande, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, Cyprus’ Parliamentary Speaker, Yiannakis Omirou, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway.
King Willem-Alexander and Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans will attend on behalf of The Netherlands.