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Guests attending the funeral service for former South African President Nelson Mandela take cell phone photos and watch as Mandela's casket is taken to its burial place in Qunu, South Africa, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013.
Guests attending the funeral service for former South African President Nelson Mandela take cell phone photos and watch as Mandela's casket is taken to its burial place in Qunu, South Africa, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013.

Mandela remembered in poignant funeral ceremony Add to ...

As soldiers carried the body of Nelson Mandela toward his rural hillside grave in a flag-draped casket, nearly 1,000 people rose spontaneously to their feet in a Soweto stadium, singing songs of praise and waving wildly at a giant broadcast screen to bid him a final farewell.

All across South Africa, in stadiums and living rooms, people gathered for emotional goodbyes to the 95-year-old liberation hero as he was laid to rest on the outskirts of the small village of Qunu, his boyhood home and the place where he built his retirement home.

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The poignant funeral ceremony in the rolling green hills of the Eastern Cape was marked by traditional Xhosa rituals, Christian hymns, grand military pomp, a host of celebrity guests, symbolic gestures of African solidarity, and warm memories of Mr. Mandela’s courage and humor.

Cannons fired a 21-gun salute, five fighter jets roared overhead, and three military helicopters flew over Mr. Mandela’s grave with huge South African flags fluttering beneath them, repeating a scene from his inauguration as South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994.

In keeping with Xhosa traditions, an ox was slaughtered before the funeral, supervised by male leaders of his clan, and Mr. Mandela was referred to as Dalibhunga (“convenor of the dialogue”), the name given to him after his initiation into manhood as a teenager.

Mr. Mandela’s family members and veteran comrades expressed their grief in speeches that were sometimes choked with emotion. “My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to,” said Ahmed Kathrada, an anti-apartheid leader and close friend of Mr. Mandela who spent 26 years in prison, one year less than his comrade.

“Farewell, my dear brother, my mentor, my leader,” Mr. Kathrada said as mourners wiped away tears.

President Jacob Zuma gave his own tribute to Mr. Mandela. “You will live forever in our hearts and minds,” he said. “You will remain our guiding light, illuminating the path as we continue the long journey to build the South Africa of your dreams.”

Mr. Zuma began his speech by singing, in Zulu, a popular struggle song from the apartheid era. “We the black nation are crying for our country that was taken by white people,” he sang. “We say, “bring back our land.’”

The main funeral ceremony was attended by about 4,500 guests, including Prince Charles, dozens of heads of state and former heads of state, and celebrities such as U.S. television star Oprah Winfrey, actors Forest Whitaker and Idris Elba, civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson and British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. The ceremony was held in a white dome-shaped tent, lined with 95 candles to represent Mr. Mandela’s 95 years of life, while his casket rested on a carpet of cow skins.

“Go well to the land of our ancestors, you have run your race,” said Mr. Mandela’s granddaughter, Nandi Mandela.

Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was a close friend of Mr. Mandela, attended the funeral but did not speak. He had earlier cancelled his plans to attend the funeral, saying he did not receive an invitation from the government, which he has sharply criticized for corruption and other misdeeds.

After an uproar on Saturday, the government insisted he was welcome, and he arrived in Qunu in a last-minute flight on Sunday morning. But he was not invited to participate in the services, even though he had played a key role in the funerals of anti-apartheid heroes such as Steve Biko, Chris Hani and Walter Sisulu.

After the funeral speeches, a smaller group of about 450 guests moved to the hillside grave to see Mr. Mandela’s coffin lowered into the ground. “Yours was truly a long walk to freedom, and now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of your maker,” military chaplain Monwabisi Jamangile told mourners at the grave.

The funeral was broadcast across the country on large screens in public viewing sites such as Orlando Stadium, a soccer field in Soweto only a couple of kilometres from the street where Mr. Mandela lived in the 1950s and 1960s and where his home is today preserved as a museum.

When close-up images of the casket were shown, the Soweto crowd burst into cheers and ululations, waving their hands and flags at the screen as if Mr. Mandela was there in person.

Mourners danced tirelessly around the stadium, clapping and singing songs. “Nelson Mandela, there is no one like you,” they sang. Even vendors in aprons joined in the dancing.

“It’s a sad day for me, it was so sad when I saw the casket, but at the same time I celebrate him,” said Lawrence Tsotetsi, a 48-year-old from the impoverished township of Orange Farm, south of Soweto. “We said goodbye to Mr. Mandela, although we were not near to him. My leader has gone.”

He stood in the stadium with his fist raised, watching the images of the soldiers carrying away the casket and remembering how his parents suffered under apartheid and how he never expected to get the right to vote. “When I was growing up, we didn’t even know the face of Mandela,” he said. “At school, we didn’t read about him. We heard about him from friends, but they said, ‘don’t talk about Mandela, you’ll be arrested.’ But Mandela changed our lives.”

Nthabiseng Chabaku, a 40-year-old supermarket employee from Soweto, remembers her parents describing how they hid her from the police and the teargas during the anti-apartheid protests of the famous Soweto Uprising in 1976, not far from the stadium where she watched the funeral on Sunday. “Mandela died for us,” she said. “Today we’ve got rights, and we’ve got unions. During apartheid, our parents were underpaid and they never had any say. Mandela made a rainbow nation, we’re living together as black and white, and that’s the most important thing that he did for us.”

Some mourners said they felt that the week of memorial services had been too dominated by politicians, without much of an opportunity for ordinary South Africans to participate. Thousands of people queued up for days to see Mr. Mandela lying in state in Pretoria, but about half of them were turned away because of a shortage of buses and other organizational problems.

Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the ruling African National Congress, acknowledged at the funeral that there had been “many mistakes” in the 10 days of mourning, which featured huge crowds and sometimes chaotic scenes in Pretoria and elsewhere. It was also plagued by controversy when Mr. Zuma was booed by thousands of people at an official memorial, and when a sign-language interpreter who stood next to world leaders was exposed as an unqualified fake with a history of criminal charges, including murder.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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