Nelson Mandela

Long walk's final destination as Nelson Mandela is laid to rest

Family, friends and dignitaries attend the state funeral service, but final rites for man who meant so much to millions were a private affair

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 12:49pm

Songs, speeches and the boom of artillery rang across Nelson Mandela's home village as a tribal chief draped in animal skin declared: "A great tree has fallen."

The Nobel peace laureate was laid to rest at his ancestral home in Qunu after a send-off combining military pomp with the traditional rites of his Xhosa abaThembu clan. Before the burial, family, friends and dignitaries attended the state funeral service in a huge domed tent, its interior draped in black, in a field near Mandela's homestead.

Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed on Robben Island with Mandela, remembered his old friend's "abundant reserves" of love, patience and tolerance. He said it was painful when he saw Mandela for the last time, months ago in his hospital bed.

"He tightly held my hand, it was profoundly heartbreaking," Kathrada said, his voice breaking at times. "How I wish I never had to confront what I saw. I first met him 67 years ago and I recall the tall, healthy strong man, the boxer, the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel when we couldn't do so.

"We can salute you as a fighter for freedom. Farewell my dear brother, my mentor, my leader."

Some mourners wiped away tears as Kathrada spoke, his voice trembling with emotion.

The songs and speeches from there were broadcast on big screens in the area, including at one spot on a hill overlooking Mandela's property. Several hundred people gathered there, some wearing colours of the African National Congress - the liberation movement-turned political part that Mandela used to lead -and occasionally breaking into song.

For 50 million compatriots, Mandela was not just a president, but a moral guide who led them away from internecine racial conflict.

"Ever since he passed away, I wanted to walk the journey with him," said Pascal Moloi, 52, who made the trip from Johannesburg to Qunu.

Watching in the village, with a wide view of the valley below, made him "feel much more connected" to Mandela, he said, saying afterwards he thought the ceremony, which was over two hours long, was "brilliant".

But local Nonkuleleko Mfoboza, 45, felt differently. "We want to be there as residents, but now there is no space for us," she said.

Several of the speeches drew standing ovations, but Mfoboza gave her stamp of approval to only a handful. "Otherwise it was boring ... too long," she said.

Qunu has, in the 10 days since Mandela's death was announced on December 5, been a hive of round-the-clock activity as funeral organisers rushed to construct a venue for the 4,500 people who wanted to attend.

"I'm sad. It's unbelievable that Mr Mandela today is no longer with us," said Qunu resident, photographer Monde Sikweza, 48, as the sound of a 21-gun salute echoed over the village.

"This long walk to freedom is gone now," he said, holding a framed photograph of Mandela and fellow comrades in 1991.

Nandi Mandela said her grandfather went barefoot to school in Qunu when he was boy and eventually became president and a figure of global import.

"It is to each of us to achieve anything you want in life," she said, recalling kind gestures by Mandela "that made all those around him also want to do good."

In the Xhosa language, she referred to her grandfather by his clan name: "Go well, Madiba. Go well to the land of our ancestors, you have run your race."

After a life spent in the public spotlight, Mandela's final rites were a private affair.

A live television broadcast followed the coffin to the graveside but was cut after several minutes in line with the family's wishes.

Overseen by male members of his clan in line with traditional Xhosa rites, the burial included the slaughter of an ox - a ritual marking of a life's milestones.

Banyanda Nyengule, head of the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha and Qunu, was one of the eyewitnesses to the private burial and said it hit him hard.

"I realised that the old man is no more, no more with us you know," Nyengule said. "The moment when the coffin went down into the ground I felt too ... emotional."

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg