When Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom finally ended Sunday, it was at the end of a dirt road winding its way across a rolling green hill on his family farm in Qunu — “that village,” Mandela wrote, “where I spent some of the happiest years of my boyhood.”
About 450 guests, including family, friends, traditional tribal leaders and a select group of figures from politics, business and philanthropy, watched as South Africa’s first black President was buried in bright sunshine next to three of his children, with a clear view of what Mandela described as “the open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.”
A state funeral, the strong military theme also served as a reminder of Mandela’s revolutionary past. His coffin was carried to the graveside by a gun carriage. An eight-gun artillery squad fired a 21-gun salute. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and a military brass band formed a guard of honor, a bugler blew the last post, then the reveille.
Overhead three military helicopters flew past flying the national flag, and six air-force jets performed a maneuver known as the missing-man formation — in which a single plane breaks away and shoots into the sky. “Beyond the hurting there is heaven,” said Bishop Don Dabula, “beyond the fighting there is peace.”
Earlier 4,500 guests from across South Africa and the world attended a mass funeral service in a giant domed tent erected nearby.
Mandela’s long struggle against oppression — his own, his people’s and finally, after he stepped down as President in 1999 at age 81, on behalf of the destitute of the world — was in search not only of freedom, peace and justice, but also of dignity, and it was that last quality that the service most reflected.
Mandela’s body was set in front of his mourners on a simple stand placed on a giant stitched black-and-white Nguni cattle hide, the most prized of Africa’s native breeds. Above the coffin, speakers delivered eulogies against of backdrop of 95 candles — one of for every year of Mandela’s life — and a giant image of Mandela.
His second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and his third, Graça Machel — both looking exhausted — sat with President Jacob Zuma and Mandela’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Behind them, the guests included Presidents, dignitaries, monarchs and celebrities from across Africa and the world, including Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Jesse Jackson, Desmond Tutu and Prince Charles.
The most moving tribute, and perhaps the one that best summed up how much of South Africa has felt since Mandela’s death on the evening of Dec. 5, was from Ahmed Kathrada, 84, imprisoned in the cell next to Mandela’s for 18 years on Robben Island, off Cape Town. “Farewell my brother, my mentor, my leader,” said Kathrada, struggling to contain his tears. “When Walter [Sisulu] died, I lost a father. Now I have lost a brother. My life is in a void and I do not know who to turn to.”
As it has been throughout the 10 days of mourning, the need to live up to Mandela’s ideals — and a guarded admonishment of his scandal-prone successors in the African National Congress — was a consistent theme of many of the eulogies. African Union chair and Malawian President Joyce Banda received a standing ovation for her speech, in which she said, “I learned from him that leadership is about falling in love with the people that you serve and the people you serve falling in love with you. I wish to appeal to President Zuma that you remain united and continue as a rainbow nation. It’s our hope and prayer that South Africa remains a country of all people, regardless of race, color or creed. We should not allow what he stood for to die and go with him.” Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete warned that while “a lot had been achieved, a lot more has to be done.”
Kathrada said Mandela’s example of “love, simplicity, honesty, service, humility, care, courage, foresight, patience, tolerance, equality, justice” had “united the people of South Africa and the world on a scale never before witnessed in history.” But, he warned, “there is a long road ahead. There is poverty, hunger, disease, education.” Zuma responded by vowing, “We dare not fail you. We will succeeding in building the South Africa of your dreams.”
Over the words of others, however, it was Mandela’s own that hovered in the air, as they have over the past 10 days, repeated in countless homages. “I was not born with a hunger to be free,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “I was born free. Free to run in the field’s near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls.”
Mandela wrote that it was only when he discovered his freedom was an illusion, taken from him by the apartheid authorities, that he began to hunger for it. “When I walked out of prison, my mission was to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that is not the case. To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances and respects the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”