Monday 17 June 2019

Mandela funeral: A ceremony full of pomp for a man who lived without it

VIPs take centre stage as Mandela finally buried in his beloved home village

Graca Machel (C), widow of former South African President Nelson Mandela, sheds a tear as Winnie Mandela (R), ex-wife of Mandela, comforts her during Mandela's funeral ceremony in Qunu, Eastern Cape
Graca Machel (C), widow of former South African President Nelson Mandela, sheds a tear as Winnie Mandela (R), ex-wife of Mandela, comforts her during Mandela's funeral ceremony in Qunu, Eastern Cape
A woman cries while standing outside the house of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg
Bishop Mpumlwana, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (C) and Reverend VG Nyobole
Military officers salute as the casket of former South African president Nelson Madela is carried to his grave site in Qunu, South Africa
Graca Machel and Winnie Mandela attend Nelson Mandela's funeral in Qunu
Oprah Winfrey sits with her partner Stedman Graham, right, and British entrepreneur Richard Branson watch South African President Nelson Mandela's funeral service in Qunu, South Africa
Mandela’s coffin is returned to his hometown with a military escort
People place candles near a photo as they pay tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela at the Trocadero square, in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris

Neil Tweedie, Aislinn Laing and Cole Moreton Qunu

THE Thembu tribe look to their ancestors for advice in times good and bad. Now, they have the best adviser of all.

Nelson Mandela was buried yesterday in a ceremony that was not really like him, a thing full of pomp and martial display, the first state funeral of the new South Africa, inevitably stocked full of people endowed with that rarely accurate abbreviation, VIP.

Mandela was truly a very important person but he also made a point of not showing it, wearing jazzy shirts instead of suits, thanking kitchen staff personally after official dinners and exchanging gossip with ordinary people in the village of Qunu, the scattering of huts and kraals in which he grew up.

He often retreated to Qunu in later years, finding peace among his people, the Thembu, of whose royal house he was a member.

The settlement is not that picturesque, squalid in part, and there are much grander vistas to be had in the Transkei, the region in which it sits, but for Mandela it was home, a haven from a world that devoured his time and privacy. It is also where some of his loved ones lie, his mother, sister, two sons and infant daughter.

Yet, the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, hailed yesterday as the country's greatest son, would hardly have recognised the place. A vast marquee, cathedral-like in scale, had been imported to house more than 4,500 mourners, among them princes, chiefs, actors and communists, together with a host of smaller tents and stands.

The military was everywhere -- this being the funeral of a former commander-in-chief, after all -- lining routes, firing field-gun salutes and buzzing overhead in helicopters and fighter jets.

Mandela the peacemaker, who managed to kill apartheid without killing South Africa, was also, as mourners were often reminded during speeches, Mandela the freedom fighter. The gun carriage, that of an old British 25-pounder, on which his coffin rode was therefore not inappropriate.

The service, the culmination of 10 days of mourning, was modern and traditional, a global televised event attended by the likes of Sir Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey, the stage lit by 95 candles, one for each of the great man's years.

But also, in its final stage, there was a more private ceremony, involving the ritual slaughtering of an ox, as a select group of 450 relatives, friends and dignitaries witnessed the dead leader's body interred near to those of his sons.

President Jacob Zuma told South Africa to carry on Mandela's legacy, calling on the country to "continue to rise".

"Tata," he said, "whilst your long walk to freedom has ended in the physical sense, our own journey continues.

"You forgave those who had taken away most of your adult life and who had dehumanised the majority of your compatriots. We learnt from you."

The audience was eclectic. Gerry Adams and the Rev Jesse Jackson were applauded warmly when their names were read to the assembled guests, many from the ruling African National Congress, Mandela's party and the dominant, if increasingly corrupt, force in South African politics.

Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, representing the former colonial power, received no such accolade.

There was a distinct anti-colonialist theme to many of the speeches, harking back to the militant Mandela of the 1960s, whose career was to suffer a 27-year interruption courtesy of white South Africa's prison system.

The audience was reminded by Jakaya Kikwete, the president of Tanzania, of his country's role as a "front-line state" in the guerrilla war against apartheid South Africa.

He was followed by that old warhorse, Kenneth Kaunda, a former president of Zambia, who insisted on referring to the old Afrikaner-dominated regime as "the Boers".

His long diatribe contributed to the ceremony over-running by two hours and the funeral missing a noon burial, said to be the ideal hour for a chief, the sun being at its highest.

Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop emeritus and Mandela's ally in the anti-apartheid campaign, was there, after initially claiming to have been snubbed by the organisers.

Mr Zuma, who suffered a public relations disaster on Tuesday when he was booed in front of world leaders by ANC supporters angry at his alleged corruption, sought to play the crowd, singing a song that will serve only to increase concern in South Africa's Anglo-Afrikaner community.

"We, the black nation, are crying for our land which was taken by the white people," went the lyrics.

Great speeches there were none, and Mandela's widows, Graca Machel and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, smiled not once at anecdotes about the man they shared. At times, Mr Zuma appeared to be dropping off to sleep.

A genuinely moving contribution came from Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid fighter and friend of Mandela who served 26 years in jail, 18 of them with the future president on the penal colony of Robben Island.

He remembered a tall, healthy man who "easily wielded the pick and shovel when the rest of us couldn't", the prisoner who "vigorously exercised" every morning.

"What I saw in hospital was a man helpless and reduced to a shadow of himself," said the 84 year-old, tears welling in his eyes. "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 to turn to.

"We are deeply grateful that dignity has been restored to all South Africans."

After the ceremony, George Bizos, Mandela's defence lawyer, said: "We have known each other for 65 years. Now he is gone. It has been a difficult 10 days."

Another inmate of Robben Island waited outside the compound.

Derrick Grootboom had driven for 15 hours with his wife Marika and two daughters, aged nine and five, to be present. A lawyer, he was detained after taking part in a campaign of sabotage against infrastructure organised by Mandela.

"All of the things I have achieved are because of the influence of this man," he said. "Just to be close to the place where he is being put to rest is enough."

Enclosed behind compound walls, Mandela's grave will not be allowed to evolve into a national shrine, at least for the moment.

In any case, there is no need. The monument to the greatest ancestor of the Thembu walks and talks and can be seen all around: a free people, equal under a system law that does not discriminate on grounds of colour.

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