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South Africans Escape Work to Watch Mandela Memorial

As the crowd gathered at FNB Stadium for Tuesday's memorial service for Nelson Mandela, many others in Johannesburg mourned from their places of employment, unable to get away for the ceremony.

In the eastern section of downtown Johannesburg, along bustling Bree Street, shopkeepers hawked Madiba t-shirts, posters and hats, as well as their usual wares.

But there was no break to attend the memorial service for Mandela, which started just before noon.

Mandla Mcunu kept watch as a security guard for local businesses Tuesday morning. A native of Estcourt, a small city in the Kwazulu-Natal province, he was a lifelong admirer of Mandela.

"I respect Madiba very well. This is the hero, so I respect him… We're feeling the pain also," said Mcunu.

He stood in a doorway out of a pouring rain, watching passers-by, as vendors on either side of him tried to entice customers. He wanted to go to the stadium, but work came first.

"I wish, but right now I'm at work. Maybe I can try talk to my boss and then I can go there," he said.

In the IT Corner, a coffee shop the artsy suburb of Melville, the ceremony was projected onto the wall of the cafe, while a handful of people watched from tables and couches, some looking up from their laptops as they worked.

Forty-year-old Ernest Plaatjies, of Johannesburg, watched on a couch, having taken the day off from working. He'd grown up under apartheid, watching the struggle for freedom. While he was in college, he would study at a library downtown, and on his way home he remembers hiding to avoid the violence between factions.

"We had the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party fighting against each other for different things. And you had to get back to get a cab to get home. And I had to hide in a drain because of the two parties trying to get their points across. It was very traumatic," he said.

As he watched Tuesday's ceremony, he reflected on what Mandela meant to him and his country.

“I'm just totally in awe with the whole experience," he said. "For me to see him being put to rest finally, it's epic. Its just one of those feelings that will forever stay in my memory, you know? Knowing that I'm part of that kind of history. So, yeah, I'm moved, happy, sad - goose bumps right now. But I'm glad I'm a South African in his times."

In Johannesburg, where rain storms typically roll through in short bursts, an uncharacteristic day of heavy rains kept many indoors. Others braved the wet weather to see the event.

Martin Macube stood under an umbrella in Nelson Mandela Square in the northern suburb of Sandton, watching U.S. President Barack Obama speak.

Watching world leaders pay tribute to Mandela was a point of pride for the Johannesburg native.

“This man was the greatest man ever in the world. Hence we are standing here in Madiba Square, as you can see his statue is there. We are here and we are proud to be called South Africans,” he said.

Thaba Thlala spent his mid-day break taking in the memorial service in Nelson Mandela Square.

“I’m on lunch. I haven’t eaten. I just came here to watch this ceremony," he said. "I just wish they would release me so I can go to the stadium. But I guess I have to work. I have to feed my family. But this one hour means a lot to me.”

Despite such moments of mourning, South Africa's work day went on.

Mandela's body will lie in state Wednesday through Friday at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. He will be laid to rest in his rural ancestral home in Qunu.