QUNU – South Africa buried Nelson Mandela on Sunday, closing one chapter in its tortured history and opening another in which the multi-racial democracy he founded will have to discover if it can thrive without its central pillar.
The Nobel peace laureate, who was held in apartheid prisons for 27 years before emerging to preach forgiveness and reconciliation, was laid to rest at his ancestral home in Qunu, after a send-off mixing military pomp and the traditional rites of his Xhosa abaThembu clan.
As his coffin was lowered into the wreath-ringed grave, three military helicopters flew low over the cemetery dangling the South African flag on weighted cables, a poignant echo of Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first black president nearly two decades ago.
A battery of cannons fired a 21-gun salute, sending booms reverberating around the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, before five fighter jets flying low and in formation roared over the valley.
‘Yours was truly a long walk to freedom, and now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of your maker,’ a presiding military chaplain told mourners at the family gravesite, where three of his children are already buried.
At the graveside were 450 relatives, political leaders and foreign guests including Britain’s Prince Charles, American civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
The interment followed a ceremonial state funeral that ran well over its allotted two hours, as speaker after speaker paid emotional tribute to the man who led South Africa out of the apartheid era.
“The person who lies here is South Africa’s greatest son,” said ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa in an opening address.
His flag-draped casket was placed on cow skins, surrounded by 95 candles – each signifying a year of his extraordinary life.
The frail and ageing leaders of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle also attended: George Bizos, Desmond Tutu and Ahmed Kathrada, whose voice broke as he delivered a eulogy for his old friend.
“I first met him 67 years ago,” said Kathrada, who along with Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1963.
He recalled his fellow inmate as a powerful amateur boxer who could cope far better than others with the physical challenge of hard labour.
“What I saw in hospital was a man helpless and reduced to a shadow of himself,” he said struggling not to break down.
“We can salute you as a fighter for freedom. Farewell my dear brother, my mentor, my leader.
“Now I’ve lost a brother my life is in a void and I don’t know who turn to.”
A towering public figure
His words left many in tears among the invited guests, whose ranks included foreign dignitaries and celebrities.
The funeral closed the final chapter on a towering public figure whose courage and moral fortitude turned him into a global symbol of freedom and hope.
During 10 days of mourning, hundreds of thousands of South Africans had turned out across the country to bid the founding father of their “Rainbow Nation” farewell.
They braved a rain-sodden memorial in Soweto and queued for three days to see his remains as they lay in state at Pretoria’s Union Buildings.
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.
For the rest of the world he was a charismatic leader of the anti-apartheid struggle.
While Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death on December 5 still sent a spasm through a country struggling to carry forward his vision of a harmonious multi-racial democracy of shared prosperity.
‘South Africa will continue to rise’
During the funeral, South African President Jacob Zuma told the country to carry on his legacy.
“One thing we can assure you of today Tata (father), as you take your final steps, is that South Africa will continue to rise.
“South Africa will continue to rise because we dare not fail you,” Zuma said.
After the ceremony, Mandela’s coffin was transported to a graveyard sitting on the sprawling family estate Mandela built in Qunu after his release from prison in 1990.
“It was in that village that I spent some of the happiest years of my boyhood and whence I trace my earliest memories,” he wrote in his autobiography.
As the coffin was lowered into the ground, a formation of military aircraft – six jets with one spot left vacant in a symbol of a missing man – flew overhead.
After a life spent in the public spotlight, Mandela’s final rites were a private affair.
A family deprived of their husband and father during his 27 years in apartheid prisons and many more years in public service seized it as an intimate last goodbye to a man who meant much to millions.
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.
Mandela was referred to throughout as Dalibhunga, the name given to him at the age of 16 after undergoing the initiation to adulthood.
– Nampa /Reuters/AFP