JOHANNESBURG - In the days following Nelson Mandela's death, radio stations in South Africa have opened their phone lines so listeners can call in thoughts and memories of Mandela. Those who met Mandela say he was a person who took the time and energy to engage with people.
In 1990, Karl Soderbergh was fresh out of law school, working at an organization that specialized in human-rights law.
"We had the privilege of helping to organize his Washington trip," he said. "So in organizing the trip, I was at the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium [in Washington] when he arrived. Of course I was a very young man then, pretty much fresh out of law school, and it’s a memory that will stay with me the rest of my life."
Soderbergh, who now lives in Stockholm, was in town for a legal conference when Mandela died. Heading to the airport to return to Sweden Friday, he decided to stop at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa's government headquarters, to sign a condolences book.
Meeting the anti-apartheid icon 24 years ago, he says, was among the highlights of his life.
"The thing that struck me then, and remains with me, was that he was so very present in his meeting with individual people," he said. "We weren't just one in a long line. He paused and really took time and was there with each and every one of us. And that's something I respected hugely. Because he clearly was someone who met thousands of people in his long life. I hardly remember [what I said]. It was basically my stuttering some words of admiration and him smiling."
Since Thursday, radio station 702 in South Africa has been taking hundreds of calls — not only from dignitaries who knew Mandela, but also from average South Africans.
For many, those interactions with the historic figure were among the most vivid highlights in their lives.
Mandela was known to shake hands with his security guards and walk over to people to greet them. His background — growing up in a rural area, coming to Johannesburg as a laborer, spending years in prison and then becoming a world-renowned politician — allowed him to interact with people in all walks of life.
Desmond Jingisa, 34, of Pretoria, grew up in a household that revered Mandela. Jingisa's father, a teacher, was an activist and told his son about the country's first black president. They felt a special bond with Mandela, who, like them, was an ethnic Xhosa.
"I actually had the privilege of meeting him in 1993 when he was still campaigning for the [African National Congress]," said Jingisa, who was 10 when Mandela was freed from prison, which he recalls watching and discussing with his parents.
"He was actually telling people that they need to get their IDs, people need to vote. People need to register to vote. People need to vote for ANC. The first time in South Africa. Like everyone was excited, I was among those kids."
Though he didn't get to speak to Mandela, the day stuck with him.
"I was about 14, I couldn't vote," he said. "The only thing I remember doing [was]: We were kids and we wanted to touch him, but unfortunately I didn't get that privilege. But then I never really interacted with him on a one-on-one basis. But like I managed to see him. At least that is one fondest memories I have."
Simon Delmont, 23, a fourth-year law student, met Mandela when he was in grade school in Johannesburg. He attended school with the president's grandchildren. Mandela visited the school about three times when he was enrolled there, and stood for a photo with Delmont.
"He hugged me," Delmont said. "I was very young, especially in that photo. I don't really remember much. I remember him being there and being overly excited. It was a very beautiful time."
Mandela also attended PTA meetings that his parents attended.
"All of the sudden he walked in and he sat through the whole meeting and he shared his views of how the school should be and how things should be run," Delmont said.
Mandela's talks with students were life lessons. Delmont said it made him "look at every single person as an equal. And I do not judge anyone based on their educational status, on their race, on their gender, on their sexual orientation.
"He said it in a way that we all understood," Delmont continued. "He spoke to us as individuals and in a way that we as youngsters would understand."
South Africans everywhere set aside Sunday as a day of prayers to honor Mandela and console his family. A huge crowd is expected for the first public memorial service, on Tuesday in Soweto's FNB Stadium.