The remains of former South African President Nelson Mandela arrived in his ancestral home of Qunu in the Eastern Cape region Saturday, in the final leg of its journey. Large numbers of people lined the roads to pay their respects as the cortege passed by in the rural region.
A state funeral will be held today for the former president, who died on December 5 in his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, at the age of 95.
The South African National Defence Force said on Friday that preparations for the state funeral were proceeding well. “Everything is on track in terms of arrangements for the funeral,” spokesperson Lieutenant t-General Xolani Mabangu was quoted as saying.
At least 100,000 people saw Mandela’s body lying in state in Pretoria over three days, from December 11 – 13, but some had to be turned away.
The coffin, drabbed in a South African flag, was flown from Waterkloof airbase in Pretoria on a C130 military aircraft, escorted by two fighter jets. In line with tribal custom, Mandela's grandson, Mandla, accompanied him on the journey, speaking to his coffin to tell him he was on his way home to rest.
It arrived in Mthatha, 700 kilometres (450 miles) away, at 13:37 local (11:37 GMT).
The coffin was moved by a military guard of honour and placed in a hearse to begin a 32-kilometre journey to Qunu, Mandela’s childhood home, where he had said he wanted to be buried.
People waving flags and cheering and singing, lined the route taken by the cortege through Mthatha town to pay their last respects, in a moment that brought tears as well as smiles on the faces of many.
The cortege drove through the gates of the Mandela homestead in Qunu, where it was expected to rest overnight in the grounds of the royal house of Thembu. His funeral will be conducted according to the traditions of his native Xhosa people.
The Thembu community will conduct a traditional ceremony – including songs and poems about Mandela’s life and his achievements – in a giant white marquee that has been specially erected.
Some 4,000 people, including presidents from Africa, several prime ministers, the Iranian vice-president, and the Prince of Wales, are expected to attend the funeral. At least 26 foreign government leaders would be at the burial.
However, Archbishop Desmond Tutu – a long-time friend of Mandela – cancelled arrangements to fly to the Eastern Cape for the funeral after saying he had not been invited.
Tutu said he had no wish to “gatecrash what was billed as a private family funeral.” But the South African government – which Tutu had criticised – later said the churchman had been invited.
“This is not an event where you need credentials and I hope a solution can be found,” said government spokesman Mac Maharaj. “He’s an important person and I hope ways can be found for him to be there.”
Ahead of the flight to the Eastern Cape, members of the African National Congress, which Mandela once led, paid final tributes to him at a ceremony in Pretoria. President Jacob Zuma, other ANC leaders and more than 1,000 members of the organisation attended the event at the Waterkloof air base. Among them were Mandela’s family members, his ex-wife, Winnie, and his widow, Graca.
It included a multi-faith service and a musical tribute.
Mourners heard President Zuma pay his own tribute to Mandela, calling him a “towering figure”, “a man of action” and a “democrat who understood the world.”
“Yes, we will miss him… He was our father, he was our guardian. He was something special.
“We'll always keep you in our hearts,” Zuma said.