QUNU, South Africa — Anti-apartheid champion Nelson Mandela was buried in his home village on Sunday after a funeral that mixed ancient tribal rituals with a display of the might of the new, integrated South Africa.
Military officers, both black and white, rolled Mandela’s flag-draped coffin to the family burial plot in the village of Qunu. Formations of planes and military helicopters, South African flags flapping from the bellies, flew over the green hills where thousands of mourners had gathered.
Unlike a public memorial service on Tuesday at a stadium that was rife with problems, the funeral and burial — broadcast on many TV channels — went smoothly, although behind schedule. The ceremonies mixed solemnity with joy at Mandela’s accomplishments, lasted all morning and into the afternoon and were fit for African royalty. Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, is descended from royalty.
Several thousand gathered in a huge white tent at the Mandela family compound for the state funeral that preceded a private service at the gravesite. Songs, speeches and the boom of artillery rang across the fields and a tribal chief draped in animal skin declared: “A great tree has fallen.”
Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail as a prisoner of the racist white government and emerged to lead a transition to a multiracial democracy, died on Dec. 5 at the age of 95 after a long illness.
His portrait looked over the assembly in the tent from behind a bank of 95 candles representing each year of his remarkable life. His casket, transported to the tent on a gun carriage, rested on a carpet of cow skins below a lectern where speakers delivered eulogies.
Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed on Robben Island with Mandela, remembered his old friend’s “abundant reserves” of love, patience and tolerance. He said it was painful when he saw Mandela for the last time, months ago in his hospital bed. Some listeners wiped away tears as Kathrada spoke.
“He tightly held my hand, it was profoundly heartbreaking,” Kathrada said, his voice quavering with emotion. “How I wish I never had to confront what I saw. I first met him 67 years ago and I recall the tall, healthy strong man, the boxer, the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel when we couldn’t do so.”
The songs and speeches in the tent ceremony were broadcast on big screens in the area, including at one spot on a hill overlooking Mandela’s property. Several hundred people gathered there, some wearing colors of the African National Congress — the liberation movement-turned political part that Mandela used to lead — and occasionally breaking into song.
“A great tree has fallen, he is now going home to rest with his forefathers,” said Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima, a representative of Mandela’s family. “We thank them for lending us such an icon.”
Mandela’s widow, Grace Machel, and his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, were dressed in black and sat on either side of South African President Jacob Zuma.
Guests included veterans of the military wing of the African National Congress, the liberation movement that became the dominant political force after the end of apartheid, as well as U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard and other foreign envoys. Britain’s Prince Charles, Monaco’s Prince Albert II, U.S. television personality Oprah Winfrey, billionaire businessman Richard Branson and former Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai were also there.
After the ceremony in the tent, a smaller group of guests walked to a family grave site.
Bayanda Nyengule, head of the Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha and Qunu, was one of the eyewitnesses to the private burial.
“I realized that the old man is no more, no more with us you know,” Nyengule said. “The moment when the coffin went down into the ground I felt too … emotional.”
Mandela was co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize along with F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid government, for his efforts at bringing about a peaceful transition in South Africa. He had emerged from prison in 1990 advocating forgiveness and reconciliation, and became president after South Africa’s first all-race elections, in 1994. He served one five-year term.
The burial ended 10 days of mourning ceremonies that included a massive stadium memorial in Johannesburg and three days during which Mandela’s body lay in state in the capital, Pretoria.
While South Africa faces many problems, including crime, unemployment and economic inequality, Mandela is seen by many compatriots as the father of their nation and around the world as an example of the healing power of reconciliation.
Here’s a brief look at the Xhosa people and the main elements of their burial traditions:
The Xhosa people
The majority of the country’s 7 million Xhosa people live in the country’s southeast, in the Eastern Cape province. Their language, Xhosa, is famous for its three click sounds. The Xhosa recognize the presence of ancestral spirits and call upon them for guidance. Veneration for the world of the ancestors, or Umkhapho in Xhosa, plays an important role in their culture. The ceremonial slaughtering of animals is one of the ways the ancestors are called upon for help, according to a website of South Africa’s Tourism Department.
Talking to the body
Following a tradition called Thetha, Xhosa culture requires a family elder to stay with Mandela’s body and explain to his spirit what is happening. “When the body lies there, the spirit is still alive,” said Rev. Wesley Mabuza, chairman of South Africa’s Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the right of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities.
“The body must be informed of whatever is happening before the funeral,” said Nokuzola Mndende, director of the Icamagu Institute for traditional religions. The body must rest for one night in his family house before the burial. “On Sunday he must then be told ‘Madiba, we are now burying you’,” she added, using his clan name in an expression of affection and respect.
Wrapped in a lion skin
The deceased must be wrapped in a special garment. For people of a high rank like Mandela, who is the son of a traditional clan chief, the body or the casket is usually wrapped in the skin of a leopard or a lion, according to Mndende. Mandela’s body was wrapped in a lion skin. “But because Madiba is also a former statesman, maybe there will also be the South African flag,” she said. Mabuza added: “It’s a ritual showing deep respect for the deceased.”
Slaughtering the ox
Xhosa tradition requires the slaughtering of an animal early on the day of the burial. After the ritual throat slitting, the animal will be eaten by the mourners, usually outside the family house. For people of a high rank like Mandela an ox will be killed, Mndende said.
“That ox is slaughtered, cooked and eaten all in one day,” she said. In some regions no salt will be used to season the meat, but in the area of Mandela’s clan that’s up to the family’s discretion, she added.
End of the mourning
A year after the burial another ox will be slaughtered and eaten by the family to mark the end of the mourning period, in a tradition called Ukuzila. “There must be a time when the mourning is broken,” Mndende said.
Bringing back ritual
About another year later a joyous ceremony is celebrated to bring back the deceased into the family so that the person will henceforth be looking over the family and its children as a well-meaning ancestor, a ritual called Ukubuyisa, according to Mndende.