NELSON Mandela’s long walk to freedom came full circle yesterday, as the man who built the foundations of the modern South Africa was laid to rest in the soil of his birthplace.
On a rolling hillside in Qunu, the isolated village where he was born and reared on the stories and values of his elders, the former president and hero of the anti-apartheid movement was buried in his family plot.
Across the blue skies of the Eastern Cape, a squadron of military jets – once a feared symbol of state oppression – staged a flypast in tribute, as three helicopters, each bearing the multicoloured flag of the Rainbow Nation, circled above.
The funeral service for South Africa’s first democratically elected president was a sombre coda to a morning of poignant reflection and celebration.
After a service attended by more than 4,000 mourners, about 450 made their way to the private burial.
Among them were foreign dignitaries including the Prince of Wales, former archbishop Desmond Tutu, veteran US civil rights activist the Rev Jesse Jackson and American talk-show host Oprah Winfrey.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s coffin was borne on a gun carriage to the ancestral plot where three of his children lie. His burial was scheduled for noon, a time, explained Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy leader of the African National Congress, that signalled “when the sun is at its highest and the shadow at its shortest.”
In the end, the love for Mandela could not constrain a final flurry of tributes and remembrances, and the ceremony ran three quarters of an hour late. Even so, the sun continued to shine as down, in defiance of forecasts warning of rain and gloom. Qunu, it seemed, was putting on a homecoming for its most famous son, who entered the world in a thatched rondavel on 18 July, 1918.
As a boy, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela attended school barefoot. When classes were over, he would hunt antelope or play by sliding down one of the sheer rocks that pepper the hillsides.
As he stood on the verge of adolescence, ancient Xhosa initiations instilled in him lifelong memories. In one such ritual, the young Mandela built his own hut and covered his body in mud, before living in isolation for weeks. The young abakwetha emerged a man. In time, he would become so much more.
As Mandela changed, so too did his village. Its main road was constructed during his time in prison, while the cramped hut where he was born has long since perished, replaced with a replica of the simple structure.
What could never be destroyed, however, was affection for the son who worked to right the wrongs of his nation.
In 1994, Qunu hosted celebratory scenes as a frail Mandela, newly freed from captivity, made an emotional return. It was a fleeting occasion and though he would yearn for many more such visits in the years that followed, the clamour for a figure of his influence ensured they were few and far between.
It was fitting, then, that the great statesman chose Qunu as the final leg of his remarkable journey. As priests clad in white, red and black robes led a procession of military pallbearers carrying Mandela’s coffin uphill to its final resting place, the stature of those who followed told of the impact this Xhosa had made in his 95 years on earth.
Among the mourners were some who played an integral role in Mandela’s hard won freedom, such as George Bizos, part of his legal team at the 1964 Rivonia trial. “We have known each other for 65 years,” he said. “Now he is gone.”
As the guests sat in a grandstand shrouded in black tarpaulin, a giant screen broadcast all but the closing moments of the ceremony.
Mandela’s coffin was placed on the grave, with the South African flag that had been covering it was handed to his widow, Graca Machel, who was comforted by his second wife, Winnie Madikizela Mandela.
As cannons fired a 21-gun salute, plumes of smoke drifted over the valley’s cornfields and grasslands.
The chaplain-general of the South African military, Brigadier General Monwabisi Jamangile, delivered the final benediction, stating: “Yours was truly a long walk to freedom and now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of your maker, God almighty. Amen.”
With that, a bugler struck up the Last Post and Mandela’s casket was lowered into a wreath-ringed grave. After ten long days of mourning, the act brought a remarkable life to close.
For those looking on, it was a moment of deep emotion. Bayanda Nyengule, head of the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu, struggled to articulate what he had witnessed. “I realised that the old man is no more, no more with us you know,” he reflected.
“The moment when the coffin went down into the ground I felt too … emotional.”
Another woman, overcome with the finality of burial, simply cried out: “Who will be our father?” The answer was, and will always be, Mandela.
When his life began on that day in 1918, the village’s soil was so eroded it could sustain only a few cattle. In the hours after the service, clouds gathered over Qunu and brought driving rain, a sign that the spirits are pleased and welcoming the dead, according to Xhosa tradition. Now, the land can draw on the power of a man who sustained a nation’s hopes and dreams.
Madiba has returned home.
Grand-daughter tells of icon’s mischievous side
Nelson Mandela was “a mischievous man”, his granddaughter Nandi Mandela said yesterday as she paid a loving and light-hearted tribute to the former president.
Speaking at Mandela’s funeral in Qunu, Eastern she described him as a disciplinarian, who would always make sure all of his grandchildren to clean up after themselves.
She said her “Tat’ Mkhulu” (grandfather) loved to share stories about his youth, and loved to poke fun at himself.
Nandi Mandela recalled a story she and the other grandchildren heard from Mandela.
He told them he was embarrassed when he went to dinner at the house of the family of a girl he was trying to impress. He could not use a knife and fork, and the chicken kept slipping off his plate,
Ms Mandela said: “He was a lot of fun to be around and he was a great storyteller.
“People always talk about his achievements, but he was a lot of fun to be around and he was a great storyteller. He had a great sense of humour. Last year, we missed hearing his voice.”
She told how Mr Mandela always made his grandchildren tidy up their mess. “He made the kids pick up their clothes before school,” she said.
Ms Mandela said the late president always did good, which inspired everyone around him to do good, even his family.
She added: “We are proud of his achievements and we want to make him proud.”
Before she spoke, a stunning rainbow appeared in the sky over the place where the former president of South Africa was arrested and imprisoned.
South Africa became known as the Rainbow Nation thanks to Mr Mandela’s actions of bringing harmony between races, and people who saw the rainbow, over Rivonia, Johannesburg, are convinced it is a “sign”.
One local said: “It was a very rare sight, as it was at 4am and It only lasted a few minutes.”