Former South African president Nelson Mandela was laid to rest yesterday after a state funeral filled with tearful eulogies and strident vows to pursue his ideals of equality and justice.
Mandela’s casket was buried at his family plot in his rural boyhood home of Qunu, watched by his widow, Graca Machel, ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, other family members and about 450 guests.
The interment followed a ceremonial state funeral that ran well over its allotted two hours, as speaker after speaker paid emotional tribute to the man who led South Africa out of the apartheid era.
“The person who lies here is South Africa’s greatest son,” African National Congress Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an opening address.
A 21-gun salute and full military honor guard had escorted Mandela’s coffin to the marquee, where 4,500 mourners said their final goodbyes.
His flag-draped casket was placed on cow skins, surrounded by 95 candles — each signifying a year of his extraordinary life.
The frail and aging leaders of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle also attended: George Bizos, former Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu and Ahmed Kathrada, whose voice broke with as he delivered a eulogy for his old friend.
“I first met him 67 years ago,” said Kathrada, who along with Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1963.
He recalled his fellow inmate as a powerful amateur boxer who could cope far better than others with the physical challenge of hard labor.
“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.”
His words left many in tears among the invited guests, whose ranks included foreign dignitaries and celebrities ranging from Britain’s Prince Charles to US talk show queen Oprah Winfrey.
While Mandela had been critically ill for months, the announcement of his death on Dec. 5 still sent a spasm through a country struggling to carry forward his vision of a harmonious multi-racial democracy of shared prosperity.
During the funeral, South African President Jacob Zuma told the country to carry on his legacy.
“One thing we can assure you of today Tata [father], as you take your final steps, is that South Africa will continue to rise. South Africa will continue to rise because we dare not fail you,” Zuma said.
After the ceremony, Mandela’s coffin was transported to a graveyard sitting 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.
As the coffin was lowered into the ground, a formation of military aircraft — six jets with one spot left vacant in a symbol of a missing man — flew overhead. After a life spent in the public spotlight, Mandela’s final rites were a private affair.
A family deprived of their husband and father during his 27 years in apartheid prisons and many more years in public service seized it as an intimate last goodbye to a man who meant much to millions.
A live television broadcast followed the coffin to the graveside, but was cut after several minutes in line with the family’s wishes.