MTHATHA, South Africa – Nelson Mandela embarked on the final leg of his exceptional 95-year journey on Saturday, as his remains were transported to his rural childhood home for traditional burial.
A C-130 Hercules carrying Mandela’s flag-draped casket and escorted by two fighter jets landed in Mthatha, in Mandela’s native Eastern Cape province, to thousands of waiting mourners and a full military guard of honour.
From Mthatha, Mandela’s remains will be carried by a funeral cortege on the short drive to his boyhood home of Qunu.
Military personnel lined the route, along with small groups of people singing anti-apartheid songs and songs in praise of the iconic statesman.
“He is finally coming home to rest, I can’t even begin to describe the feeling I have inside,” said 31-year-old Bongani Zibi. “Part of me is sad but I’m also happy that he has found peace.”
Sunday’s interment will bring down the final curtain on 10 days of national mourning and global tributes for the prisoner-turned-president who transformed his country and inspired the world.
Tens of thousands had packed a soaked stadium in Soweto for a memorial service Tuesday and up to 100,000 people filed past Mandela’s open-casket for the three days it was displayed at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.
The same venue had witnessed his inauguration as South Africa’s first black leader two decades earlier.
Mandela’s flag-draped casket was flown to Qunu in Eastern Cape province after a send-off organised by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) which he once led.
President Jacob Zuma, flanked by Mandela’s widow Graca Machel and ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, said South Africa needed “more Madibas” — using Mandela’s clan name — in order to prosper.
“Yes we are free but the challenge of inequality remains,” Zuma said, citing the twin blights of poverty and unemployment on the country’s economic progress.
“We would like to say, go well Tata (father). You have played your part and you have made your contribution,” he added.
Mandela’s favourite poem “Invictus” was printed on the back of the memorial programme and a verse was read out during the send-off.
Mandela’s grandson Mandla recalled how as a young child he would hear people in the then blacks-only township of Soweto shouting Amandla! (power) and “Viva Mandela”.
“I thought I must be a very popular kid,” he joked.
Since Mandela’s death at his Johannesburg home on December 5, South Africans have turned out in pouring rain and blistering sunshine to say goodbye to the anti-apartheid icon.
There were scuffles on the final day of the lying in state on Friday, as police had to turn away tens of thousands of frustrated mourners who were unable to get in to view the body.
Sunday’s funeral will begin at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) with a two-hour ceremony for 50,000 people, including foreign dignitaries such as Britain’s Prince Charles.
But Mandela’s friend and fellow Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu is unlikely to be there, the archbishop’s office said Saturday, amid allegations he was not invited for political reasons.
The burial itself will be a strictly private affair, barred to both the public and the media, on the wishes of the Mandela family.
“They don’t want it to be televised. They don’t want people to see when the body is taken down,” government spokeswoman Phumla Williams told AFP.
A small crowd had gathered at Mthatha airport to welcome Mandela’s casket.
Clutching two photographs of himself with Mandela, Solomon Juries, 50, had travelled from Cape Town, with other former members of the ANC’s armed wing.
“It’s very, very emotional for me to be here,” Juries said.
“I just get emotional when I think he’s gone and we will only hear about him but never see him again,” he added.
The funeral will be held according to traditional Xhosa rites overseen by male members of Mandela’s clan.
The slaughtering of an animal — a ritual performed through various milestones of a person’s life — will form a crucial part of the event.
During the ceremony, Mandela will be referred to as Dalibhunga, the name given to him at the age of 16 as he entered adulthood.
Although Mandela never publicly declared his religious denomination, his family comes from a Methodist background.