JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When South Africa’s national anthem swelled in the Regina Mundi church in Rockville, Soweto, on Sunday, retired teacher Liz Magubane was sure that somewhere, Nelson Mandela could hear them.
“That was the time when I felt like crying. I had tears in my eyes,” she said. “There were times when I would stand up and move my body a little bit, and enjoy it,” added Magubane, a member of a Roman Catholic Church group known as the Sodality of St. Anne, which does charitable work, visits people in prisons and helps orphans.
Symbolizing the national mood of mixed celebration and grief, there were moments when joyful music rose and people swayed in rhythmic unison, remembering their idol, described by the assistant parish priest Sebastian J. Roussow as “a light in the darkness.”
Magubane was not the only one uplifted by the spirit of joy in the church. U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard posted a video of a rousing gospel song on Twitter.
“Stirring service at Regina Mundi,” he tweeted. ”Don’t know the language but know that spirit. Moved to join in making a joyful noise.”
One woman held up a flag, waving it in time to the music. Another wore a flag wrapped around her head. Most were in their Sunday best.
Regina Mundi church was at the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle in Soweto, when political meetings were banned. During the Soweto uprising, when police shot at schoolchildren in 1976, killing a boy named Hector Pieterson, police entered the church where people were seeking shelter and fired shots. It is now a popular stop on the Soweto tourist route.
Another regular at the church, Jackie Chepape, 54, an unemployed teacher, held up a poster dedicated to Mandela. It read: “Farewell Tata, unifier, peacemaker, negotiator, believer. May your soul rest in peace.”
Chepape said he cried during the service as waves of grief and joy swept over him. “There are different kinds of tears, tears for glory, tears if you are sad, tears if you are happy. Today it was just one of the happiest days to say goodbye to our beloved father and to remember the things he did for the country, and the old man’s legacy,” he said.
Sanele Makeleni, 42, who wore the South African flag like a kerchief, said she normally attended another church but came to celebrate and mourn Mandela.
She said the national anthem was mournful and sad, not the lively, energetic rendition South Africans are used to, as people contemplated Mandela and let go of him.
“My mind took me back to 1991, when he was released from prison, because we would not be here if he hadn’t been freed,” she said.
She said it was up to South Africans to carry on Mandela’s legacy.
“The sermon wasn’t making us feel depressed,” she said. “It was making us feel accepting, and helping us to stay in unity and hope. It was an encouraging sermon. There was hope.”
Chepape said he felt relieved that Mandela’s spirit was resting peacefully.
“If people can start where he left off, it will bring peace in the whole world and South Africa can be an example,” he said.
South African President Jacob Zuma and Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, attended a Methodist Church service in an upscale Johannesburg suburb, Bryanstown.
Zuma addressed the congregation, calling on South Africans to reflect on Mandela’s values and emulate them.
“He believed in caring and he cared for our nation,” the president said. “He preached and believed in peace, that we should believe in peace, that we should believe in unity, that we should be united as a Rainbow Nation. He fought and preached justice, that there should be justice [for] all, that there must be equality [for] all. He believed in forgiving and he forgave, even those who kept him in jail for 27 years.”
He said Mandela had distinguished himself “for good things and good things only.”