Taking a final journey to his home village of Qunu, the remains of former South African president Nelson Mandela were honored amid pomp and ceremony yesterday at an air base in the capital, before being flown aboard a military plane bound for the simple village in the wide-open spaces of eastern South Africa.
At the airport near Qunu, there was a buzz of activity, with military vehicles including SUVs and armored personnel carriers driving around as anticipation built over the coming-home of South Africa’s most famous figure.
Residents and people who had traveled for hours thronged a road leading to the village, singing and dancing as Mandela T-shirts were handed out.
Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for opposing racist apartheid and emerged in 1990 to forge a new democratic South Africa by promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. He became president in 1994 after South Africa’s first all-race democratic elections.
Soldiers in full gear, male and female, were stationed on foot on either side of the road from the airport in Mthatha as cows grazed nearby. Some civilians were also already lining route, shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas.
Mandela had longed to spend his final months in his beloved rural village, but instead he spent them in a hospital in Pretoria and then in his home in Johannesburg, where he remained in critical condition, suffering from lung problems and other ailments, until his death.
There was a surprise announcement in the plans for today’s funeral in Qunu as retired archbishop Desmond Tutu’s family said he would not be attending because he had not received credentials as a clergyman.
“The Archbishop is not an accredited clergyperson for the event and thus will not be attending,” the Reverend Mpho Tutu, the archbishop’s daughter, said in a statement.
She is chief executive of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation.
A spokesman for Tutu refused to elaborate and said Tutu himself would not be commenting.
Tutu, who like Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for resisting apartheid, has been an occasional critic of the current government.
Mac Maharaj, a spokesman for the presidency, said Tutu is on the guest list and that he hopes that he will attend. He said he was surprised by the statement and was looking into possible solutions.
Milly Viljoen, 43, drove 12 hours through the night with a friend to stand on the roadside overlooking Mandela’s compound in Qunu.
“It’s befitting to see him to his final resting place,” she said.
Viljoen, a student activist during apartheid, first saw Mandela when he appeared before an enthralled crowd in Cape Town after he was released in 1990. She met him later when he visited the township school where she was teaching.
“You couldn’t help but love the man and be touched and hang onto his every word,” she said.
At a solemn ceremony at Waterkloof air base in Pretoria that was broadcast live on South African television, a multi-faith service and a musical tribute to Mandela were held.