PRETORIA, South Africa - Black and white, old and young, South Africans by the thousands paid final tribute Wednesday to their beloved Nelson Mandela. In silence or murmuring, they filed past the coffin. Some glanced back, as if clinging to the sight, a moment in history.

One man raised his fist, the potent gesture of the struggle against white rule that Mandela led from prison. A woman fainted on the steps, and was helped into a wheelchair.

They had only a few seconds to look at the man many called Tata - father in his native Xhosa - his face and upper body visible through a clear bubble atop the casket, dressed in a black-and-yellow shirt of the kind he favored as a statesman

"I wish I can say to him, 'Wake up and don't leave us,' " said teacher Mary Kgobe, 52, after viewing the casket at the century-old Union Buildings, a sandstone government complex overlooking the capital, Pretoria, that was once the seat of white power.

Wearing the black, green, and gold of the African National Congress, the ruling party Mandela once led, she was among the multitude who endured hours in the sun to say goodbye to the man they call their father, liberator, and peacemaker.

Kgobe said losing Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at 95, was like losing a part of herself.

Long lines of mourners snaked through the capital for a glimpse of Mandela's body as it lay in state for three days - an image reminiscent of the miles-long queues of voters who waited patiently to cast their ballots during South Africa's first all-race elections in 1994 that saw Mandela become the country's first black president.

Police officers stood nearby, one holding a box of tissues.

Mandela was lying in state in the same hilltop building where he made a stirring inaugural address that marked the birth of South Africa's democracy - an irony that was not lost on the throngs.

"It's amazing to think that 19 years ago he was inaugurated there, and now he's lying there," said another viewer, Paul Letageng. "If he was not here, we would not have had peace in South Africa."

The mourners were joined by world leaders and Mandela family members, who walked silently past the casket at a special morning viewing, Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, among them.

By the afternoon, long lines had formed, but the government said the cutoff point had been reached, urging people to arrive early on the following two days to get their chance.

Mandela's body is to be flown Saturday to Qunu, his rural childhood village in Eastern Cape province, where he will be buried Sunday.