Mandela's body brought home ahead of funeral tomorrow

Thousands throng streets to welcome beloved leader home writes Peter Murtagh in Qunu

Nelson Mandela was back in his home village tonight after a tumultuous welcome from thousands of people in the streets of Mthatha and along the road to his village Qunu where he will be buried tomorrow.

His formal funeral, before a congregation of 4,500 inside a large domed marquee, will be conducted according to the rites of the Methodist Church, a South African government minister, Colin Chabane, told The Irish Times tonight.

He said he also expected that traditional funeral rites would be observed at the funeral but that ultimately was a matter for the Mandela family. Mr Mandela was of the Xhosa nation and a member of the Madiba clan. He was also associated, through his father and his own upbringing, with the Thembu royal household.

Traditional funeral rites of the Xhosa would include the slaughtering of an ox early on the day of the funeral and it being eaten it its entirety by the guests. The body would also be wrapped in an animal skin and, given Mr Maldela’s high station, this could be a leopard skin. A family elder will also remain with the body, talking to its spirit in the hours leading up to interment.


Burial will take place in a Thembu graveyard on raised ground behind the Mandela family home in Qunu for 450 of the 4,500 funeral congregation only. They are expected to be comprised of family and close friends. No filiming of the interment is to be allowed.

The 4,500 funeral guests, who include family and friends, government and others associated with the African National Congress, and foreign dignitaries, must be inside the marquee by 7am with the doors closing at 7.30. The funeral is due to begin at 8am local time and be over around mid-day.

There is controversy here surrounding retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, a close friend and campaigner against apartheid with Mr Mandela, who says he will not be at the funeral despite wanting to be because he says he was not invited.

“Much as I would have loved to attend the service to say a final farewell to someone I loved and treasured, it would have been disrespectful to Tata [Mandela] to gatecrash what was billed as a private family funeral,” he said.

“Had I or my office been informed that I would be welcome there is no way on earth that I would have missed it.”

Last night, Mr Chabane sought to wash the government’s hands of the matter, saying the government had not issued invitations to anyone but rather responded to lists supplied by various groups, of which the church was one. He implied that Archbishop Tutu’s name was not church submitted list but said that anyone with a pass to the earlier State Memorial Service, at which Archbishop Tutu spoke, could come to Qunu.

Local people in Qunu, a village of kraal-style farms, modest homes some of them traditional round houses known as roundvells, with enclosures for crops and animals, continue to express dismay that they have not been invited to the big marquee despite feeling that the funeral is very much of one of their own.

Responding to this, Mr Chabane told a press conference that previous South African presidents had been buried in a state plot. He implied that in interring Mr Mandela in his boyhood village, the government was going a long way to meeting the aspirations of the villagers in the context of a new South Africa.

Later speaking to The Irish Times, Mr Chabane said he understood village life but it was the duty of village elders to inform people and explain to them. "We hope that has been done," he said.

In order to meet the desire to watch the funeral, the government has erected around 30 large screens, in addition to the 150 already up across the country, in locations in the traditional kingdom.

Many of those people were out on the streets of Mthatha yesterday from 9am until 3pm when the convoy with Mr Mandela’s body finally arrived, heralded by a giant C130 Hercules transporter plane escorted by two MiG jets.

The crowd, which had been waiting in baking sunshine, went wild with excitement – their Madiba was nearing; Nelson Mandela’s long journey home was nearing its completion.

From early morning, they have been gathering in Mthatha, a city of some 100,000 people in the Eastern Cape but with a hinterland population of close to a million more. The plane carrying the former South African president’s coffin was due to touch down around 11am when finally, at 2.30pm, they got sight of what it is assumed is the plane carrying his remains.

The streets were thronged with people – good natured, waving flags and carryong pictures of their beloved late president, the man they all without hesitation credit with bring them their freedom from apartheid.

Outside an office of the University of South Africa on York Road, a wide boulevard through the city, an impromptu gathering of about 100 young people letrip with freedom struggle songs – many of them in praise of Mandela.

They sang, and bounced and danced and suddenly without any apparent instructions to do so, moved off out onto the street; up and down they went, signing and chanting in perfect harmony.

More and more people arrived in the centre of the city as the morning wore on and grew into afternoon. The police and troops multiplied also. Lines of volunteers wearing orange tabards tried to keep order, gently ushering people back onto the pavements.

A police patrol car cruised up and down, an officer on loud speaker telling people not to rush the road when the hearse arrived.

“We can’t wait to see his body,” is the rather disconcertingly cheerful exclamation of Baxolile Kulu, aged 34, an African National Congress youth worker who feels people from Mandela’s home community have been rather short changed so far during the week long funeral accorded to the late former president. “It’s unbelievable. It’s unfair his body was in Pretoria for three days and we just have to wait here for a moment as he passes. Madiba is everybody’s person; not just for the dignitaries.”

Waiting with her two grandchildren, aged 10 and 15, was Nolundi Msengana, an administrator with the university which is an Open Distance eLearning institution with students in South Africa and Canada and most places in between.

“Mandela has been an icon, the person we look up to,” she said, explaining why she and the children are waiting. “As a manager, I feel passionate about what he did for us. To me Mandela has freed our minds. People are happy now; this is emotional freedom.”

Recalling voting for the first time aged 40 in South Africa’s first free elections, she said she really didn’t know what she was doing.

“I wasn’t sure what I was voting for. We do not know the politicians we vote for but to stand there in ling for all those hours just to vote, that gave me the confidence that yes, this was my country, this is my country.”

The dancing crowds multiplied and divided into several jogging choirs, singing a mix of freedom songs and gospel. At the head of one for a time were three nuns from the Roman Catholic order, the Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood, an order founded by the Austrian, Francis Pfanner. The nuns walked some 20 kms from their convent to be here for this moment.

“Amanda! [POWER!]shouted the all singing, all dancing, mourners as they breeze past conga-like and head off down York Road, lined with troops and jacaranda trees in bloom, the blue flowers beautifying the vista.

Earlier, Mr Mandela’s body was the centre piece at Waterkloof military airport in Pretoria, for a send-off ceremony of prayers and eulogies, his coffin draped in the flag of the African National Congress at the centre of proceedings.

Various groups, including one representing South Africa’s legal profession, took it in turns to stand guard of honour-like by the bier.

Several hundred people led by the chief mourner, Mr Mandela's widow Graca Michel, other members of Mr Mandela's family, and South Africa's current president Jacob Zuma, were at the air base to see Mr Mandela off.

His grandson, Mandla Mandela, now head of the family following Mr Mandela’s death, read the official obituary of the former president, taking the audience through his life as a boy and the influence that the Thembu royal household had on him, his setting up of the first black law firm in the country, his joining the ANC, founding its youth wing, and his eventual work with the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, to his arrest, trial and convictions and 27 years in jail in Robben Island off Cape Town, to his release and successful negotiating of an end to apartheid and the establishment of a multi-racial, free South Africa.

Mandla, a sometimes controversial figure, has won wide approval for the way in which he has conducted himself over the three days Mr Mandela was lying in state in Pretoria. On each day, he has accompanied Mr Mandela’s body from the No 1 Military Hospital, where it has been kept overnight, to the lying in state in Pretoria.

There, he has sat in silence with it as tens of thousands of mourners filed past, whispering to the coffin as it was removed each evening for the journey back to the hospital. Mr Mandla made reference to this as the end of the obituary yesterday.

“For the past three days, I have sat with my grandfather while he has been lying in state,” he said. “I have witnessed his army. I have witnessed his people. I have witnessed ordinary South Africans who walked this long walk to freedom with him and I can assure the African National Congress today that the future of this country looks bright.”

The audience showed their appreciation with sustained applause.

The ceremony began with faith leaders saying prayers and giving their own personal eulogies to Mr Mandela.A series of speakers followed, representing, among others, South Africa’s trade union movement, the Communist Party and civic society.

The ceremony was orchestrated by Jessie Duarte, deputy general secretary of the ANC and Mr Mandela’s personal assistant, who made reference between speakers to the international representation present, including she said, “Sin Féin and the Irish peace process”.

Proceedings reached a climax when the South African poet Mzwaki Mbuli spoke rousingly about Mr Mandela’s struggle and the freedom he bequeathed South Africans.

President Zuma, in contrast to the booing and jeering reception accorded to him at the State Memorial Service on Tuesday, was listened to with respect as he delivered a solemn speech concentrating on the repression of the apartheid regime, Mr Mandela and the ANC’s campaign against it and the generosity of the eventual settlement.

He lauded the achievements of the ANC, perhaps with an eye to next year’s elections at which he will be hoping to deliver another solid victory for the movement.

Once Mr Mandela’s body passed through Mthatha it travelled on to Qunu where it will rest overnight, accompanied at all times by an elder of the family.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times