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JOHANNESBURG — Not waiting for the formal services and ceremonies to begin, South Africans mourned Nelson Mandela's passing with tributes around the nation Saturday, including at the foot of his statue in a modern commercial development here.
In their first statement since his death on Thursday, Nelson Mandela's family said in a statement that they'd "lost a great man, a son of the soil."
"The pillar of the royal Mandela family is no more with us physically, but his spirit is still with us," Lt. Gen. Temba Templeton Matanzima said, reading the statement to journalists Saturday.
Grieving countrymen dropped off fresh flowers, some in elaborate bouquets, along with photographs, messages and other mementos paying tribute to Mandela, whose passing at age 95 is regarded as a deeply personal loss by many South Africans.
"We lost our daddy, mother, granddaddy. For us, he was everything,'' said Rita Hlathi, 53, who came with a friend to pay tribute to the former president and leader of the long struggle to strike down the country's former official system of apartheid.
"I love Mandela,'' she said. "I wish I could find someone like him.''
Mandela's leadership, including 27 years as a prisoner of the state and his work for peaceful racial reconciliation, allowed the nation to progress to the modern economy and rainbow society of today, said Margaret Tyawana, 55, who joined her friend Hltathi in paying tribute at the statue.
Mixed with those warm remembrances, however, was some unease about the nation's future as it moves forward without Mandela's soothing presence.
"He brought a lot of things to us, like education, jobs,'' says Tyawana. "He means everything to us. … I don't know what this world would be like without him. South Africa, I think, will suffer.''
The tall statue, which had a pigeon resting on the head for much of the afternoon, stands in Nelson Mandela Square, a plaza ringed by a modern mall and busy restaurants, one of them a Hard Rock Cafe.
People waited in long lines to have their pictures taken at the statue. Children not tall enough to reach the statue's knees smiled broadly as they hugged the lower leg of the 18-foot figure.
People waited for their turn to write personal messages in a condolence book as diners sat around the square at cafe tables adorned with candles bearing the likeness of Mandela. Throughout the afternoon, couples bent down with bouquets and placed them in with the other flowers. There were also hand-colored drawings and a teddy bear in the pile.
Aifheli Phophi brought her three daughters — Karabo, 13, Rendani, 10, and Phumu, 6 — from their home in Pretoria to visit the impromptu shrine and talk about the importance of Mandela to their nation. She said his long life, to 95, was a blessing for the nation.
"We are mourning, but we knew one day it was going to happen,'' she said.
The government has declared a week of mourning, and Mandela's photograph and name can be seen everywhere around this city, from the airport to hotels and the shopping malls. A large, public funeral is planned Tuesday in Johannesburg's soccer stadium, and his body will lie in state in Pretoria from Wednesday through Friday.
Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane told journalists Saturday he expects massive crowds far beyond what the stadium's 95,000-person capacity could hold. He said there would be "overflow" areas set up.
"We can't tell people not to come," he said, adding that Mandela's body won't be at the stadium event Tuesday.
The state funeral and burial will be in a week, on Dec. 15, in his home village of Qunu in Eastern Cape Province, far from the center of government and commerce. It's unclear which ceremony world leaders will attend, either Tuesday's stadium memorial or the funeral service in Qunu.
Mandela did not make any plans or requests for his funeral other than he be buried in the town in which he was raised and that his marker be a simple stone that says only "Mandela," the government said.
Tyawana and Hlthathi both live and work in Johannesburg but like many South Africans still retain close bonds with their home villages. They are both from the same province as Mandela — Tyawana from Queenstown and Hlathi from Umtata — and plan to travel together back to Qunu for the observance.
Among those who left a bouquet of flowers at the Mandela statue was Deb Pruseth, visiting from India, who said many South Asians feel deep kinship with Mandela because of parallels with their own nation's struggle for freedom and democracy.
"What he did for South Africa, Mahatma Ghandi did for India,'' Pruseth said, explaining why he offered his tribute.