Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and one of the modern era’s most iconic political figures, was laid to rest on Sunday in his ‘home’ village, Qunu.
The man who led a whole nation on its ‘long walk to freedom’ received a send-off befitting a national hero as fellow freedom-fighters, princes and princesses, potentates, dignitaries, business moguls and celebrities gathered from far and wide to pay tribute to South Africa’s “greatest son”.
If one cannot escape the feeling that, having insisted on this humble final resting place, this man of the people would have been somewhat perturbed that his people and their traditions were largely ignored, then the silver lining is that the world is less ignorant of those people and traditions as a consequence.
Mourners who turned out along the 19 mile route to Qunu from Mthatha airport complained bitterly that the cortege moved too quickly for them to see the flag-draped casket, never mind properly pay their respects and bid their liberator farewell.
Efforts to observe the traditional burial rituals of Mandela’s Xhosa clan were somewhat thwarted by the scale of the event but 4,500 attendees and a global TV audience of hundreds of millions could never have been contemplated when those tribal funeral edicts were first conceived.
Less forgivable, given the disposition of the man being honoured, was the cordon erected to keep out ‘undesirables’ but which also served to exclude the people a fit and healthy Mandela chose to spend his leisure time with. Even if he saw all South Africa’s oppressed – perhaps all South Africans – perhaps all the world’s oppressed – as his people, the people of Qunu were HIS people in its truest sense.
Yet many of these same people felt snubbed by the organisers’ apparent contempt, overwhelmed by the maelstrom of international media attention and inconvenienced by the upheaval brought about by hastily paved roads to accommodate traffic where there was previously dirt track and goats. One Xhosa tribal leader was heard to say that Madiba, for so long their own, had been taken away from them.
Despite dire weather predictions, the sun knew enough to make its presence felt for just enough time to illuminate proceedings before making way for torrential rain as soon as the crowds dispersed. Under a specially erected marquee, moving tributes poured forth from friends, family and fellow leaders past and present. Regrettably, current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, could not fight the urge to insert an election campaign speech into his eulogy, while Kenneth Kaunda, former president of neighbouring Zambia, proved beyond doubt that stand-up comedy is not an avenue retired politicians should ever pursue.
Confident he would not face the hostile reception he endured days earlier at the Madiba Memorial, Mr Zuma remembered a man who transformed a country, saying “South Africa will continue to rise because we dare not fail you.
“Your abiding revolutionary spirit will convey on us to not rest until the poor and the working class have truly benefitted from the material fruits of freedom and democracy which you fought for,” he said, continuing: “Tata, as your triumphed journey comes to an end, we sincerely thank you for dedicating your life to building a free and democratic South Africa in which all shall live in equality and dignity.
“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 and its surrogates. They are no doubt truly proud today to have been brought to this planet by a man so great and yet so humble.”
Mr Zuma’s government – mired in allegations of mismanagement and corruption – has been vilified for not living up to Mandela’s standards. But in a lengthy address, Mr Zuma attempted to channel the spirit of hope Mandela engendered during this state funeral – South Africa’s first.
“Whilst the long walk to freedom has ended in the physical sense, our own journey continues. We have to continue building the type of society you worked tirelessly to construct. We have to take the legacy forward,” he concluded.
Ahmed Kathrada, anti-apartheid activist, friend and for 26 years Mandela’s fellow political prisoner, delivered an emotional opening eulogy, saying that he had been left in a void by the death of his “dear brother”.
“The last time I saw Madiba alive was when I visited him in hospital. I was overwhelmed with a mixture of sadness and pride,” he said, adding: “My mind automatically flashed back to the picture of the man I grew up with.
“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.
“Madiba, we may be drowned in sorrow and grief, [but] we must be proud and grateful that after the long walk paved with obstacles and suffering we can salute you as a fighter for freedom in the end. Farewell, my dear brother, my mentor, my leader.”
Mandela’s grandson Ndaba delivered an obituary, while granddaughter Nandi delivered a tribute on behalf of his children and grandchildren. Nandi remembered her grandfather as a storyteller with a great sense of humour.
“During the past year we truly missed hearing his voice. At dinner, he liked telling stories about his childhood and he preferred the ones where he would poke fun at himself,” she said.
“One of his favourite stories was of him chasing a piece of chicken with a fork at a dinner table with a family of a girl that he wanted as his girlfriend.
“He would say – and you’ve heard this story many a time – ‘Gee whiz, man. Every time I stabbed the chicken it jumped, and I was sweating and embarrassed because I wanted to impress this young girl’.”
What threatened to detract from the main focus of the day was nipped in the bud when Desmond Tutu responded to a late invitation and took his place amongst the mourners. The former Archbishop of Cape Town was a close friend of Nelson Mandela but latterly fell out with the ANC. Asked about the funeral in an interview, Tutu said he had not been invited when, perhaps, he should have simply kept quiet, mindful that an apparent snub ran the risk of taking over the headlines. The organisers blamed an error, which as their best option whether it was true or not, and the media world returned to its axis.
In accordance with the Mandela family’s wishes, the lowering of the casket was not broadcast and was observed only by a select group of 450 guests and family members who, curiously and to the potential chagrin of the 4,000 who didn’t make the cut, were named during the main service.
It will inevitably prove a forlorn hope that the isolated Eastern Cape village of Qunu will not become a tourist attraction and Mandela himself would baulk at the notion that his grave might evolve into a place of pilgrimage. It will be for the government and local leaders to ensure that whatever becomes of this long-sanctified site and its environs is handled with sensitivity. The events of the past two weeks have run roughshod over the people of Qunu but their patience is likely to wear thin should their village become a vista for voyeurs.