, QUNU, Dec 15 – A 21-gun salute and full honour guard escorted the coffin of Nelson Mandela as his state funeral got underway Sunday in the rolling hills of his rural boyhood home.
A Xhosa hymn, “Fulfill Your Promise”, sounded the start of the ceremony, organised to reflect the traditions of his tribe and the pride of the country he transformed as dissident and president.
The specially constructed marquee venue held 4,500 people, with pride of place going to Mandela’s family, including his widow Graca Machel and ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela who sat on either side of President Jacob Zuma.
Mandela’s flag-draped casket was placed on cow skins and surrounded by 95 candles — each signifying a year of his extraordinary life, which saw him make the journey from prisoner to president.
“The person who lies here is South Africa’s greatest son,” said ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa.
Top government officials and foreign dignitaries and celebrities, ranging from Britain’s Prince Charles to US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, were also in attendance.
The funeral closes the final chapter on a towering public figure whose courage and moral fortitude turned him into a global symbol of freedom and hope.
And it ends 10 days of national mourning during which hundreds of thousands of South Africans turned out in torrential rain and searing sunshine to grieve, remember and celebrate the life of their first elected black leader.
The formal section of the state funeral was to last two hours and was broadcast around the world.
The public was shut out of the interment itself, which the family insisted would be a private affair with close friends.
The graveyard sits 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.
Overseen by male members of his clan, the burial will include the slaughter of an ox — a ritual performed through various milestones of a person’s life under the clan’s traditions.
During the ceremony, Mandela will be referred to as Dalibhunga — the name given to him at the age of 16 after undergoing the initiation to adulthood.
Mourners will wear traditional Xhosa regalia, with blue and white beaded headgear and necklaces.
Xhosa speakers are divided into several groups, including the Thembu people, of which Mandela is a member.
Although Mandela never publicly declared his religious denomination, his family comes from a Methodist background.
Tutu attends burial.
Funeral plans were briefly overshadowed by an outcry after Mandela’s old friend and fellow Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said he had not been invited.
In the end Tutu did attend, and the government tried to brush off the confusion as a misunderstanding.
Tutu — who baptised South Africa the “Rainbow Nation” — has been a persistent critic of the government of President Jacob Zuma and has also spoken out against infighting in Mandela’s family.
Over the years, the archbishop emeritus has presided over the funerals of some of the anti-apartheid movement’s leading lights, including Steve Biko, Chris Hani and Walter Sisulu.
While Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death on December 5 was still sent a spasm through a country struggling to carry forward his vision of a harmonious multi-racial democracy of shared prosperity.
For the rest of the world, it marked the loss of that rarest of world leaders who are viewed with near universal respect and admiration.
Gushing tributes poured in from every corner of the globe, although Mandela himself had always stressed he was part of a communal leadership and resisted any move towards his public canonisation — posthumous or otherwise.
“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, a mourner in Qunu, as the funeral cortege carrying Mandela’s casket arrived on Saturday.
“Part of me is sad but I’m also happy that he has found peace.”