Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and most revered citizen, was laid to rest at his rural home next to the remains of three of his six children, ending a 10-day official mourning period.
About 4,500 relatives, friends and colleagues bid farewell to Mandela at a funeral service in a giant marquee erected in Qunu in the Eastern Cape province, before military pallbearers removed his coffin for burial. His body lay in state for three days in the capital Pretoria, and was transported along a dusty road today in his home village through a military guard of honor as cannons blasted in salute.
“It is the end of 95 glorious years of a freedom fighter, a dedicated and humble servant of the people of South Africa,” President Jacob Zuma said after leading the mourners in a song sung during the fight against apartheid. “We are truly honored to be part of the final journey of this great son of our country.”
Memorial events last week drew thousands of South Africans and world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, who paid tribute to Mandela following his death on Dec. 5 at the age of 95. Jailed for 27 years for opposing white minority rule under apartheid, Mandela was hailed for promoting reconciliation between blacks and whites after his release in 1990. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and became the nation’s first black president a year later.
“Farewell my dear brother, my mentor, my leader,” Ahmed Kathrada, who knew Mandela for 67 years and was jailed with him on Robben Island, said in an emotional tribute in front of 95 lit candles. “My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to.”
Mandela’s coffin, which was draped in a South African flag, was placed on a gun carriage and driven after the service to a hillside gravesite accompanied by a military band and guard of honor.
His widow Graca Machel was presented with the flag, before final prayers were said and military helicopters and jets flew overhead. A 21-gun salute was followed by a rendition of “The Last Post” by the military band.
The burial ceremony was attended by about 450 people including close friends and family, and wasn’t televised in line with the wishes of the Mandela family.
Zuma sat near Mandela’s coffin during the funeral service, flanked by Machel and his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Both women were dressed in black with their heads covered.
“He was driven by common decency,” Nandi Mandela, one of the former president’s 18 surviving grandchildren, said in her tribute. “Here lies a well-renowned leader, a son of Africa who grew up in these rolling hills.”
Dignitaries who attended the service included the U.K.’s Prince Charles, U.S. civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson, TV celebrity Oprah Winfrey, Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson and Prince Albert of Monaco.
Queen Elizabeth II of the U.K. plans to honor Mandela at a service in Westminister Abbey, London, next year, the Johannesburg-based Sunday Times reported, citing abbey spokesman Duncan Jeffrey.
“Humanity is indeed better off because it had the good fortune of having the likes of Mandela,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who is also chairman of the African Union. “We should find consolation that his legacy will live on in eternity.”
Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, 89, jogged to the stage to pay his tribute, which was cut short as organizers missed the deadline for a noon burial, as is tradition for Mandela’s Xhosa people.
The funeral service was broadcast live to a number of stadiums and other venues around the country. One screening took place at Mvezo, Mandela’s birthplace about 20 miles from Qunu, where about 50 mourners gathered in a tent.
“We couldn’t all be accommodated in Qunu and also want to give him a dignified send-off,” said Nonkoliseko Sobuzi, a community leader who oversaw villagers cooking stew and vegetables for the mourners. “That’s the least we can do to thank him.”
At the Mandela homestead, the body was delivered to tribal elders yesterday to perform traditional rites in preparation for the funeral. Mandela, widely known by his clan name Madiba, spent most of his childhood in the rural village of Qunu and built a home there after his release from prison. As the crowds greeted the procession yesterday, many raised their fists in the air, as Mandela did when he was released from prison.
The South African National Defense Force deployed 11,894 soldiers to maintain law and order and assist with the state funeral, according to the government.
“I feel a sense of great loss after seeing the funeral, its all over now,” Manikelo Gwaqubane, 53, said at the public viewing area in Mvezo. “I have faith that even though we are sad today, Mandela’s work of uplifting the poor and giving our children education will be carried on.”