South Africa says goodbye to its 'greatest son'

Under blue skies, in the village of his boyhood, Nelson Mandela was laid to rest

In the end, it was a rainbow funeral – the sort of final passage that acknowledged differing aspects of his faith in a harmonious unity. A meeting of faiths and rites of which one suspects he might have approved.

Inside the gleaming white dome marquee, ministers of the Methodist Church prayed and quoted the scriptures. Outside, a troop of Xhosa men in traditional costume, replete with shields and spears, danced their culture’s inimitable send-off.

Beneath a clear blue sky and blistering sun, Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, the first man chosen freely by all the people of his country was laid to rest with the praises of his peers and admirers filling the air, and with pomp and circumstance befitting a leader of his global stature.

"The person who lies here is South Africa's greatest son," said ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa in an opening address.


Mr Mandela’s coffin was borne from his home, a modern house he built for himself in Qunu, the rural village of his boyhood, after his release from prison and later election as president. An honour guard of troops from the South African defence forces led the way, followed by a military band, decked out in ceremonial red.

The coffin was on a gun carriage that passed between ranks of soldiers and was carried into the place of worship, a large dome-style marquee erected just behind his home.

The funeral was attended by a galaxy of South Africa's great and good – government ministers led by President Jacob Zuma; Mr Mandela's family, led by the chief mourner, his widow Graca Machel and former wife Winnie Mandela, and also the new head of the family, Mandla Mandela, chief of the nearby village of Mvezo.

There were local and regional clan kings and princes; foreign royalty included Prince Charles of the United Kingdom and Prince Albert of Monaco. Nations not represented by the heads of government or state, were represented by ambassadors.

There were celebrities too, including Opera Winfrey, the Rev Jessie Jackson, Bono and entrepreneur Richard Branson (representing The Elders, the group that includes former president Mary Robinson which seeks to influence global affairs through advice).

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was present, despite an earlier kerfuffle about whether he was invited. Mention was also made from the podium of Gerry Adams, described as "the leader of Sinn Féin from Northern Ireland".

The funeral service was dominated by eulogies, the most heartfelt of which came from Ahmed Kathrada who spent 26 years with him on Robben Island prison off Cape Town. They became close friends as well as comrades in the struggle.

“I first met him 67 years ago,” said Kathrada, recalling how Mr Mandela exercised daily to stay fit. “What I saw in hospital was a man helpless and reduced to a shadow of himself,” he said struggling not to break down. “We can salute you as a fighter for freedom. Farewell my dear brother, my mentor, my leader. . . Now I’ve lost a brother my life is in a void and I don’t know who turn to.”

Malawian president Joyce Banda, who is also chairwoman of the South African Development Corporation, said Mr Mandela had taught her how to be a leader. "Leadership is about falling in love with the people you serve and the people falling in love with you," she said he told her.

Peaceful end
The president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, recalled how in the early 1960s Mr Mandela and the ANC formed an armed wing, believing at that time that a peaceful end to apartheid was not possible. From Dar es Saalem, the organisation ran a radio station and sought to organise its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

President Jacob Zuma, whose evident unpopularity in some quarters saw him booed and jeered at an earlier event, spoke warmly about the sacrifices of Mr Mandela’s family.

He was preceded to the podium by Zolani Mkiva, an imbongi or praise singer who warmed up the audience. With a leopard skin slung over his left shoulder, he made reference to the bones of ancestors as he extolled both Mr Zuma and Mr Mandela.

Mr Zuma began his address by singing a well-delivered slow lament that had the congregation following – “We in South Africa cry for our nation and for the blood that was shed,” they sang.

He spoke directly to Mr Mandela’s family, beside whom he sat during the service and burial. “We acknowledge the suffering of your own children who had an absent father and a father who was called a dangerous man and a terrorist by the apartheid regime. They are no doubt truly proud today to be brought to this planet by a man so great and yet so humble.”

He thanked Mr Mandela’s late first wife Evelyn Mase and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in comments that were well-received.

Aspects of the funeral were overseen by male members of Mr Mandela's clan in line with traditional Xhosa rites: the burial included the slaughter of an ox – a ritual marking of a life's milestones – and he was referred to throughout as Dalibhunga, the name given to him at the age of 16 after undergoing the initiation to adulthood.

After the funeral, the coffin was taken to the graveside on a gun carriage and carried to the opening by senior military officers. An army chaplain stood over his former commander-in- chief and said: "The Lord will find the kind of man he wants and make him ruler of his people."

But it was the Rev Dr Ziphozihle Siwa, presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa of which Mr Mandela was a member, who perhaps said best what most felt about the passing of their hero, their icon.

“In Matthew I,” he began his sermon, “I found the words, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’. . .”

As the coffin was lowered into the red sandy soil of Qunu, no doubt adding significantly to the Mandela allure that already brought many visitors to this place, six planes of the South African air force flew past in honour, followed by five jets, one breaking off into a vertical flourish.

A triplet of helicopters flew slowly over the graveyard, the South African national flag draped beneath them and silhouetted against the rolling green hills about which Mandela wrote lovingly.

There was a 21-gun salute by the artillery, a lone bugler played taps.

His day was done.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times