Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela's childhood village of Qunu prepares for his final return

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 7:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 December, 2013, 7:31am

In Nelson Mandela's childhood village of Qunu, residents are solemnly waiting to lay him to rest a week from now.

Elderly men in the picturesque village dotted with traditional round huts bow their heads and lower their voices when they speak of the anti-apartheid hero who has "returned to his ancestors".

There has been no explosion of public emotion, unlike in Johannesburg, no singing to celebrate Mandela's 95 years, no all-night vigils.

His home, overlooking the hills and valleys of the Eastern Cape - where Mandela said he spent his happiest childhood days - is sombre and eerily quiet.

"We are in mourning. He deserves our greatest last respects," said Chief Mfundo Mtirara, Mandela's nephew.

Mtirara had the difficult task of breaking the news of Mandela's death to close relatives.

"A great man is gone. We are deeply saddened, even though we knew that this day would come," he said. "He deserved our respect while he was still alive, so we are going to continue to give him that respect even in death," said Mtirara, who lives near Mandela's homestead.

The town will hold a public memorial service for the revered leader, affectionately known by his clan name, Madiba.

At the estate that Mandela built after his release from prison in 1990, armed soldiers and policemen stand guard.

The busy road near the house has been closed to traffic in preparation for the influx of luminaries and mourners expected to descend on the rural village.

Motorists have been diverted to dusty back roads.

Pipe-smoking old men idled along the village's many footpaths, often stopping to chat to fellow villagers about Madiba's passing. "He was given to us by the ancestors. Now he has returned to them," Albert Njokweni said while herding his sheep.

"The old man lived a long and difficult life, but it was that difficulty that brought us freedom. Now it's time for him to rest among his people," he said.

"I don't think this village will ever see a person like him again. We are thankful to have called him one of our own."

In the nearby town of Mthatha, where Mandela went to school and which has a museum dedicated to him, flags were flying at half mast, with posters of him hanging from lamp posts.

A supermarket displayed a large image of the anti-apartheid icon with the message: "Rest in peace Nelson Mandela. You were a legend, a father and most of all our leader."