Under a sunny African sky, Nelson Mandela’s relatives, national leaders and ordinary South Africans gathered in the lush, rolling hills of his beloved boyhood village for the funeral of one of the world’s most revered figures.
The Sunday morning burial service marked the culmination of 10 days of national mourning and global tributes to Mandela and his remarkable rise that began in Qunu, home to a few hundred subsistence farmers and a village little changed since Mandela’s youth.
Traveling a dirt road, a military procession ushered in Mandela’s coffin, draped in a South African flag, about an hour before the formal service was to begin. A gun carriage transported the coffin, while personnel from the various military branches marched in front and behind, and also lined the route. A band played. Cannons fired.
Mandela’s coffin, draped in the South African flag, was placed in front of the podium featuring dozens of candles.
Because Qunu is so remote, South African authorities erected a temporary pavilion to host the more than 4,000 mourners. They included the country’s elite, royalty and political figures from around the world and spirited South African men and women, including his ANC comrades, who entered the grounds singing and dancing to celebrate Mandela, who died on Dec. 5 at age 95.
Mandela, who was born the year World War I ended, spent the first few years of his life about 20 miles away in the village of Mvezo. His father was a tribal chief with four wives. But a white judge stripped his father of his position in a dispute over an ox, and the family settled in Qunu.
Mandela ran barefoot in the hills, tended cattle and sheep, and learned traditional stick fighting in a place full of fond memories.
“I 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 cold, clear streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “It was in that village near Umtata that I spent some of the happiest years of my boyhood.”
Mandela left Qunu to go to college and to avoid an arranged marriage. Thus began an extraordinary journey in which he would become an anti-apartheid activist, the world’s most famous prisoner, the country’s first black president and one of the most revered global figures of the past century.
After he retired from public life almost a decade ago, Mandela built a retirement home in Qunu. That house, a small Mandela museum and a few gravestones with the names of Mandela family members, including three of his children, are among the few signs that distinguish this village from any other in South Africa.
The events surrounding Mandela’s death have gone smoothly for the most part, though there have been a few hiccups.
A brief controversy erupted Saturday when it appeared that the Emeritus Archbishop Rev. Desmond Tutu, a close friend of Mandela and a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, might not attend.
Tutu said he had not received an invitation, but organizers said there were no formal invitations sent out and that he was on the list. In recent years, Tutu has been sharply critical of Mandela’s African National Congress over issues such as corruption.
However, the dispute was quickly resolved and Tutu arrived in Qunu early Sunday morning, some two hours before the service.
Britain’s Prince Charles, businessman Richard Branson, U.S. civil rights figure Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey were also among those paying tribute to Mandela.
President Obama was among the many world leaders who attended a memorial service Tuesday at the country’s largest soccer stadium in Soweto, the huge black community outside Johannesburg where Mandela lived before spending 27 years in prison.