With military pomp and traditional rituals, South Africa buried Nelson Mandela on Sunday, thus marking the end of an exceptional journey for the prisoner turned President.
Mandela, who died on December 5 at the age of 95, was laid to rest in his childhood village of Qunu. His body travelled from Pretoria by air to Mthatha in Eastern Cape province, and then by road to Qunu .
Present at the private burial were about 450 members of the Mandela family, political and religious leaders as well as foreign dignitaries, including Britain’s Prince Charles, American civil rights activist ,Reverend Jesse Jackson and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
Tribal leaders clad in animal skins joined the dignitaries in dark suits at the grave site overlooking the rolling green hills.
As pall-bearers walked toward the site after a funeral ceremony, three helicopters whizzed past dangling the national flag. Cannons fired a 21-gun salute and their echoes rang over the quiet village.
Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief as she watched the proceedings.
“Yours was truly a long walk to freedom. Now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of God, your maker,” an officiator at the grave site was quoted by the Cable News Network as saying.
Military pall-bearers gently removed the South African flag that draped Mandela’s coffin and handed it to President Jacob Zuma, who gave it to the former President’s family.
At the request of the family, the lowering of the casket was closed to journalists.
The funeral ceremony
Before the burial, 4,500 family members, friends and dignitaries attended a state funeral service in a huge domed tent, its interior draped in black, in a field near Mandela’s homestead.
Seated on either side of Zuma were Graca Machel, and Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie.
African National Congress members, veterans of the fight against apartheid, several African presidents and business mogul, Richard Branson, were among the guests.
The flag-covered casket was carried in by military chiefs, with Mandela’s grandson and heir, Mandla, and Zuma following in their footsteps.
It was then placed on black and white Nguni cattle skins in front of a crescent of 95 candles, one for each year of Mandela’s life. A choir sang Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika or “God Bless Africa” drifted over the village, a giant picture of Mandela looked down with a smile. Mourners placed their fists on their chests, some with tears streaming down their faces.
The Deputy Leader of the ruling ANC , Cyril Ramaphosa, who presided over the three-hour ceremony, broadcast live across the nation and around the world, said, “The person who is lying here is South Africa’s greatest son.”
Zuma, in his remark, described the ex-South African leader as a beacon of hope and thanked the Mandela family for sharing him with the world.
He said, “Today (Sunday) marks the end of an extraordinary journey that began 95 years ago. It is the end of 95 glorious years of a freedom fighter and a beacon of hope to all those fighting for a just and equitable world order.
“We shall not say goodbye, for you are not gone. You’ll live forever in our hearts and minds.”
In other major cities, including Johannesburg, crowds watched the funeral at special screenings in stadiums.
I’ve lost a brother – Mandela’s prison mate
Mourners represented all spheres of Mandela’s life. There were celebrities, presidents, relatives and former political prisoners.
“You symbolise today and always will … qualities of forgiveness and reconciliation,” said a tearful Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela’s close friend, who served time in prison with him for defying the apartheid government.
“I’ve lost a brother. My life is in a void, and I don’t know who to turn to,” Kathrada lamented.
Talk show host, Oprah Winfrey; Prince Charles; and business mogul, Richard Branson, were also among the attendees.
The funeral and burial ended 10 days of national mourning for a man whose fame transcended borders.
“Mandela was our leader, our hero, our icon and our father as much as he was yours,” Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete, said, regaling mourners with tales of a secret visit Mandela made in 1962 to Dar es Salaam to gather support for the African National Congress.
During his fight against apartheid, Mandela fled to Tanzania, which housed the headquarters of the ANC.
In sharp contrast to the days of apartheid, the events honouring Mandela included a great deal of pageantry as well as state honours.
Before arriving in Qunu, the ex-President’s body lay in state for three days in Pretoria. After an emotional service at the air base there, which included the handing over of his body to the ANC , it was put in a military helicopter for the final leg of his journey.
Though he dined with kings and presidents in his lifetime, the international icon relished his time at the village. He herded cows and goats there as a child, and always said it was where he felt most at peace. Some of his children were also buried there.
“He really believed this is where he belonged,” said his daughter, Maki Mandela.
Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for defying the racist apartheid government that led South Africa for decades. He emerged from prison in 1990 and became South Africa’s first black president four years later, all the while promoting forgiveness and reconciliation.
His defiance of white minority rule and his long incarceration for fighting segregation focused the world’s attention on apartheid, the legalised racial segregation enforced by the South African government until 1994.
Years after his 1999 retirement from the Presidency, Mandela was considered the ideal head of state. He became a yardstick for African leaders, who consistently fell short when measured against him.
“Thank you for being everything we wanted and needed in a leader during a difficult period in our lives,” Zuma said.
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