In perfect summer sunshine, Mandela’s casket was undraped, blessed and lowered into the soil from which he sprang.
Nearly a century after he roamed these fields as a boy herding sheep and calves, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was buried on Sunday in a curated garden of aloe plants, rocky outcrops and meandering paths atop a hill.
A black blanket with white stripes that had belonged to South Africa’s first democratically elected president was placed on his casket to symbolise his return home, in line with the traditions of the Xhosa people to which he belonged, said Bantu Holomisa, a family friend involved in organising the state funeral.
The Last Post was sounded as the casket was lowered at 12.40pm. The rest was silence. “Quiet, quiet, quiet, quiet,” Holomisa said. “Everyone was just looking at it quiet.”
Sitting nearest were Mandela’s widow Graça Machel and his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, together just as they had been at Mandela’s bedside when he slipped away on 5 December. Holomisa said he gave Machel’s daughter a handkerchief to pass to the stricken 68-year-old.
“You could see they were weeping and consoling each other but they still remained strong,” he added.
Mandela was laid to rest under a black marble headstone with a white inscription giving his name, the dates 18 July 1918 to 5 December 2013, his clan names and the simple entreaty “rest in peace”, according to Holomisa, a politician who regarded him as a mentor. The casket is held in place by a concrete slab on top and earth around its sides.
The dignified interment marked the end of a life’s journey that began when Africa was still under the heel of colonialism, with only two countries enjoying independence and some territories still seen as the private property of commercial companies. Mandela lived to see the map profoundly transformed and a vibrant continent determined to shape its own destiny in the 21st century.
A new generation of African leaders honoured him at a beautiful funeral service in a cavernous marquee amid the undulating green hills around the village of Qunu, where “South Africa’s greatest son” spent the happiest years of his childhood.
Some 4,500 people descended on the valley where the young Mandela “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 clear, cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire,” as he recalled in his autobiography.
As so often in South Africa, the funeral took place at an intersection of African and western traditions. The burial rites of Mandela’s AbaThembu clan and the colours and songs of his African National Congress (ANC) party, merged with Christian hymns and the pageantry of marching bands, a fly-past by air force helicopters and jets, a 21-gun salute and burial with full military honours.
Mandela’s flag-draped casket was carried into the marquee by military chiefs, with his grandson and heir, Mandla, and South African president Jacob Zuma following in their footsteps. It was then placed on a simple stand on black and white Nguni cattle skins before a crescent of 95 candles, one for each year of Mandela’s life, that had been burning since dawn, and a curtain with a pattern showing his smiling face.
A choir sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the national anthem adopted after the end of racial apartheid in 1994. “The person who is lying here is South Africa’s greatest son,” said Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy leader of the ANC, who presided over the three-hour ceremony broadcast live across the nation and around the world, as Mandela brought people together once more.
The raw grief of Machel was given voice by Ahmed Kathrada who, in arguably the most affecting speech of the past 10 days, laid bare how old age had become Mandela’s new jailer.
“I was filled with an overwhelming mixture of sadness, emotion and pride,” the former Robben Island prisoner said in a quivering voice, describing a visit to Mandela in hospital, the last time he saw him alive. “He tightly held my hand until the end of my brief visit. It was profoundly heartbreaking. It brought me to the verge of tears when my thoughts automatically flashed back to the picture of the man I grew up under. How I wished I’d never had to confront the reality of what I saw.”
Using Mandela’s clan name, Kathrada said they had first met in 1946. “I recalled the tall, healthy and strong man; the boxer; the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel at the lime quarry on Robben Island. I visualised the prisoner that vigorously exercised every morning before we were unlocked. What I saw at his home after his spell in hospital was this giant of a man, helpless and reduced to a shadow of his former self.
“And now the inevitable has happened. He has left us and is now with the ‘A Team’ of the ANC – the ANC in which he cut his political teeth, and the ANC for whose policy of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa he was prepared to die.”
With two other spears of the ANC – Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu – having fallen before Mandela, there was an acute sense that Sunday’s funeral was a valediction for the golden summer of Africa’s oldest liberation movement. Kathrada concluded: “When Walter died, I lost a father and now I have lost a brother. My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to.”
The marquee was consumed by a sepulchral hush. The only human response was to weep.
There were musical interludes, most poignantly from a children’s choir, religious sermons and lighter moments too. Nandi Mandela, one of 18 grandchildren, recalled how Mandela enjoyed poking fun at himself with stories told over dinner: “One of his favourite stories was of him chasing a piece of chicken with a fork at a dinner table with a family of a girl that he wanted as his girlfriend.
“He would say – and you’ve heard this story many a time – ‘Gee whizz, man. Every time I stabbed the chicken it jumped, and I was sweating and embarrassed because I wanted to impress this young girl’.”
There were reminders that Mandela’s struggle for freedom was also Africa’s struggle, and this was the moment for post-independence leaders to assume the mantle. Speeches were heard from Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister of Ethiopia, Jakaya Kikwete, the president of Tanzania, and Malawi’s Joyce Banda, who said Mandela had inspired her to become the first female president in southern Africa. “Leadership is about falling in love with the people you serve and about the people falling in love with you,” she said, earning a standing ovation.
Surrounded by plangent singing, Mandela’s casket was mounted on a gun carriage for its final journey, followed on foot by 450 guests including his successor Thabo Mbeki, long-time friend Desmond Tutu, Prince Charles, the US civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, TV personality Oprah Winfrey and businessman Sir Richard Branson.
In perfect summer sunshine, his casket was undraped, blessed and lowered into the soil from which he sprang. Mandela was at last reunited with the three children who died before him and are buried close by. “Rest in peace,” said General Monwabisi Jamangile, the armed forces chaplain. “Yours was truly a long walk to freedom and now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of your maker, God almighty. Amen.”