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 favoured as a statesman.

"I wish I can say to him, `Wake up and don't leave us,"' said Mary Kgobe, a 52-year-old teacher, 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.

"This moment is really electrifying, knowing well what he did for us. I wish we could follow in his steps and be humble like he was," said Kgobe, whose grandfather, an ANC activist, was arrested several times.

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.

Some mourners made the sign of the cross, others simply gazed at Mandela's face through a glass bubble atop the coffin at the Union Buildings, the government offices in South Africa's capital, Pretoria.

Mandela was dressed in a black and yellow patterned shirt, a trademark style that he adopted as a statesman. His eyes were closed. His white hair swept up from his forehead.

Mandela family members and world leaders viewed the body Wednesday morning. By the afternoon, long lines had formed to see the casket but the government said the "cut-off" point had been reached, urging people instead to arrive early on the following two days to get their chance.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, South African President Jacob Zuma and other leaders passed by the casket in two lines. Four junior naval officers in white uniforms kept watch. Celebrities including 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.

"I hope that his focus on lasting reconciliation will live and bloom in South Africa," de Klerk said.

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

Some appeared lost for a moment, looking down at Mandela. South Sudan's president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, stood transfixed before removing his trademark black cowboy hat and crossing himself.

CBC reporter Kim Brunhuber said from Pretoria that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was one of the last leaders to file through, followed shortly after by the public. 

Harper's delegation included his wife, three of his predecessors, four premiers, two former governors general and Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair.

Harper announces new scholarships

Following the viewing, Harper announced new scholarships in Mandela's memory to benefit both Canadian and African students.

The African scholarships are aimed at early career public sector professionals in Africa to study in such areas as governance, public policy and administration.

The program will consider candidates from across Africa for study in Canada for one to two years, with special consideration given to female students.

Harper said the scholarships will help Africans gain the required knowledge to help advance economic and social development in their home countries.

"Nelson Mandela believed that education, more than anything else, improved the chances of leading a better life," said Harper.

The Dept. of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development will contribute up to $5 million over five years toward the scholarships, to be matched by the MasterCard Foundation.

The Canadian scholarships will be open to as many as 20 Canadians pursuing master's or doctoral-level degrees in social sciences and humanities.

The studies will focus on national unity, democracy, freedom and human rights, which Harper said Mandela had "championed so tirelessly during his remarkable life."

Up to 10 master's scholarships and up to 10 doctoral scholarships will be awarded for the first time in 2015, following a 2014 competition.

Brunhuber said the mood is much more sombre than the relatively joyous celebration of Mandela's life during Tuesday's memorial.

"Some are saluting, some are wiping away tears, one said this whole week has been like a dream and only by seeing Mandela was he able to wake up," Brunhuber said.

'We would not have had peace'

CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge said he spoke to between 15 and 20 people waiting in line to see Mandela, and each had a story of how Mandela had touched their lives.

Mansbridge said one woman holding her daughter said, "'My daughter will grow up in a very different world because of that man we are going to see.'"

Police officers were a few steps away from the coffin, one holding a box of tissues. Some clearly were overcome by the sight, one woman covering her entire face, weeping as she walked away supported by a colleague. Others carried posters bearing Mandela's image.

"I'm lost. My mind is lost," said Silver Mogotlane after passing by the casket.

"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."

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 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 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. Police blocked traffic, backing up cars for several kilometres on a highway leading into Pretoria.

Army helicopters had been circling overhead but then a sudden quiet fell over the amphitheatre as the hearse arrived. Eight warrant officers representing the various services and divisions of the South African National Defence Force carried the casket, led by a military chaplain in a purple stole. The officers set down the coffin and removed the flag.

Cameras banned from viewing area

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

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 14,100 cubic metres of stone, representing the Afrikaans and English languages spoken in the country — but none of the land's native languages.

Even from its inception, the building long has been considered a symbol of governance in the country — and of apartheid until Mandela took office.

Each day, Mandela's coffin will be driven back to 1 Military Hospital to be held overnight. Authorities have asked the public to line the street as an honour guard for each trip.

The government set up buses to bring in mourners. At the Pretoria Showgrounds, one gathering point, the line of people waiting for hours started pressing forward against fencing there. Police ended up having to help some children and elderly people away as they feared they'd be hurt in the crush.

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

A massive memorial service, attended by nearly 100 world leaders, was held for Mandela at a Johannesburg stadium on Tuesday. Police said Wednesday that retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu's home in Cape Town was robbed while he was away, attending the memorial. An investigation was underway.

Like Mandela, Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to promote basic rights and reconciliation during the apartheid era.

With files from CBC News and The Canadian Press