Some 4,500 people arrive at what was supposed to be an intimate funeral service • "Two thousand years from now, who knows how many people are going to talk about Obama, Merkel or Cameron, but people are going to talk about Mandela," attendee says.
The funeral procession in Qunu, where Nelson Mandela was laid to rest
Photo credit: AFP
Planes perform a flyover during Mandela's funeral service
Photo credit: AP
There is nothing unusual about Qunu. Small, colorful homes dot the hills and valleys. Every village in this part of South Africa would look like this. But there is a good chance that this area will be transformed in the not-so-distant future. The final resting place of Nelson Mandela, who became a symbol of freedom, is unlikely to lie in stagnation. This village is now forever changed.
"Not only did he give the people of his village national prominence, he also gave them international stature," Mandila, a nephew of Mandela, told me. "He turned South Africa from a pariah state into a global leader."
In 2000, Qunu built a museum celebrating Mandela's life. Anticipating the large crowds, a large tent was set up this week several hundred meters from the museum. The funeral, by the way, was supposed to be a low-key event, attended by family and friends. But Mandela was not the kind of person for whom an intimate farewell would suffice. Unless you extend the definition of intimate to include the presence of 4,500 people.
Another, square-shaped tent could be seen 200 meters (656 feet) from the funeral venue. It looked similar to the Kaaba in Mecca. This was where Mandela would be buried. A senior police officer, Gen. Fourie, told me, "This site will have people coming in from all corners of the earth."
In the early hours of Sunday morning, South Africa paid its final respects to Mandela. The previous night, I stood next to the people who had descended on the village because they wanted to have a few extra hours with "Tata Madiba." Little children who lived in the village could be seen playing games on the road, looking at the many visitors.
The first ceremony was held at 7 a.m. It included the national anthem, "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa"). The racial composition of the military honor guard was about one white person for every 10 black people. But they all stood together with a shared sense of pride.
Dozens of world leaders descended on South Africa last week to attend the memorial in honor of Mandela, held at what is known as Soccer City Stadium. U.S. President Barack Obama was among them. There was no shortage of dignitaries on Sunday either: Prince Charles, Oprah Winfrey, Rev. Jesse Jackson. The President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, put into words what everyone was feeling: "Leadership is about falling in love with the people you serve and about the people falling in love with you. It is about serving the people selflessly, [with] sacrifice and with a need to put common good ahead of personal interest."
This drew cheers from the crowd.
I stood there, observing the large crowd. Two couples caught my eye: two good-looking white men, in white tuxedoes and tinted glasses, with two good-looking black women in black dresses. One of the men, Sean, told me that he and his brother had married the black women "thanks to Mandela." "This is not a nation of blacks and whites," he said. "It is a nation of South Africans, like everyone around here."
The procession ended at 10 a.m. The soldiers were now off duty, calling home to share their exciting experience. "We have a great country, and a lot of that is because of Mandela," Fourie said.
At noon, Mandela's body was taken to the familial plot, to be buried next to his deceased relatives. His family held a small ceremony as it placed his coffin near the graves of his parents and three children. Xhosa warriors performed ritual dances.
I must admit, I am awestruck by what South Africa has managed to accomplish, by its transition from apartheid to national reconciliation, to a normal rhythm of life that has many colors to it. And this, because of a single individual.
"He deserves to rest in peace and meet his ancestors," Sibo, a member of the Zulu tribe, tells me. "Two thousand years from now, who knows how many people are going to talk about Obama, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel or [British Prime Minister David] Cameron, but people are going to talk about Mandela."