Under a sunny African sky, Nelson Mandela’s family, national leaders and ordinary South Africans gathered in the lush, rolling hills of his beloved boyhood village for the funeral of one of the world’s most revered figures.
The casket of Nelson Mandela is escorted to the funeral ceremony in Qunu.
Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
The Sunday morning burial service marked the culmination of 10 days of national mourning and global tributes to Mandela and his remarkable rise that began in Qunu, home to a few hundred farmers and a place little changed since Mandela’s day.
“Today, I think we can all agree, the person who lies here is South Africa’s greatest son,” said Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president of the African National Congress, Mandela’s party.
Ramaphosa and the other speakers appeared on a podium with Mandela’s coffin, draped in a South African flag, in front of them, and 95 candles, representing Mandela’s age, flickering behind them.
Because Qunu is so remote, South African authorities this past week swiftly erected a temporary pavilion to host the more than 4,000 mourners.
From the inside, the pavilion provided a modern, polished venue for a formal, dignified ceremony. From the outside, it resembled a white bubble placed among the cow pastures and modest homes of Qunu, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region.
The funeral was both a global public event televised around the world and a private local ceremony with speakers that included a tribal leader with a leopard skin draped over his suit and speaking in Xhosa, Mandela’s first language.
One of the most moving tributes was delivered by Ahmed Kathrada, who knew Mandela for nearly seven decades as a long-time fellow prisoner and leader in the ANC.
Kathrada, who spent 26 years in prison, compared to 27 for Mandela, liked to joke that he “got a discount.”
“Today, mingled with our grief, is the enormous pride that one of our own has, during his lifetime, and now in his death, united the people of South Africa and the entire world,” Kathrada said.
His voice cracking at times, Kathrada described another ANC leader, Walter Sisulu, who died a decade ago, as his father, and Mandela as his older brother. With both now dead, he said, “My life is in a void. I don’t know who to turn to.”
People watch the big screens at the site where Nelson Mandela will be buried on his family’s property in his childhood village.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
South African President Jacob Zuma, who was repeatedly booed by the large crowd at Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday, received a more generous welcome Sunday.
“We have to keep building the type of society you worked tirelessly to construct,” Zuma said. “We have to take your legacy forward.”
While Zuma received polite applause, one president received a standing ovation –- Malawi’s Joyce Banda, one of the few women who has headed an African nation.
She said that after an assassination attempt she tried to emulate Mandela by working with her enemies and not holding a grudge. She also praised Mandela for promoting the rights of women.
“Women across Africa have told me that they are very, very proud of you and will be forever grateful for what you have taught us as African women,” Banda said.
Though mostly solemn, the service also included singing, laughter and moments of lightness, some of it provided by Kenneth Kaunda, the 89-year-old former president of Zambia, who jogged to the podium in a stiff-legged shuffle.
When an organizer told him to wrap up a speech that was running long, Kaunda responded, “All right, gentlemen, I’m going to end this soon.”
Traveling a dirt road, a military procession ushered in Mandela’s coffin, draped in a South African flag, about an hour before the formal service was to begin. A gun carriage transported the coffin, while personnel from the various military branches marched in front and behind, and also lined the route. A band played. Cannons fired.
Mandela’s coffin, draped in the South African flag, was placed in front of the podium featuring dozens of candles.
Because Qunu is so remote, South African authorities erected a temporary pavilion to host the more than 4,000 mourners. They included the country’s elite, royalty and political figures from around the world and spirited South African men and women, including his ANC comrades, who entered the grounds singing and dancing to celebrate Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at age 95.
Mandela, who was born the year World War I ended, spent the first few years of his life about 20 miles away in the village of Mvezo. His father was a tribal chief with four wives. But a white judge stripped his father of his position in a dispute over an ox, and the family settled in Qunu.
Mandela ran barefoot in the hills, tended cattle and sheep, and learned traditional stick fighting in a place full of fond memories.
“I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the cold, clear streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “It was in that village near Umtata that I spent some of the happiest years of my boyhood.”
Mandela left Qunu to go to college and to avoid an arranged marriage. Thus began an extraordinary journey in which he would become an anti-apartheid activist, the world’s most famous prisoner, the country’s first black president and one of the most revered global figures of the past century.
After he retired from public life almost a decade ago, Mandela built a retirement home in Qunu. That house, a small Mandela museum and a few gravestones with the names of Mandela family members, including three of his children, are among the few signs that distinguish this village from any other in South Africa.
The events surrounding Mandela’s death have gone smoothly for the most part, though there have been a few hiccups.
A brief controversy erupted Saturday when it appeared that the Emeritus Archbishop Rev. Desmond Tutu, a close friend of Mandela and a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, might not attend.
Tutu said he had not received an invitation, but organizers said there were no formal invitations sent out and that he was on the list. In recent years, Tutu has been sharply critical of Mandela’s African National Congress over issues such as corruption.
However, the dispute was quickly resolved and Tutu arrived in Qunu early Sunday morning, some two hours before the service.
Britain’s Prince Charles, businessman Richard Branson, U.S. civil rights figure Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey were also among those paying tribute to Mandela.
President Obama was among the many world leaders who attended a memorial service Tuesday at the country’s largest soccer stadium in Soweto, the huge black community outside Johannesburg where Mandela lived before spending 27 years in prison.