South Africa buries its greatest son - CNBC Africa

South Africa buries its greatest son

Southern Africa

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Presidential Guard at the Mandela Residence in Qunu as National Defence Force members carry former President Nelson Mandela's remains. GCIS

South Africa held a state funeral for Nelson Mandela on Sunday, closing one chapter in its tortured history and opening another in which the multi-racial democracy he founded will have to discover if it can thrive without its central pillar.

The Nobel peace laureate, who was held in apartheid prisons for 27 years before emerging to preach forgiveness and reconciliation, was honoured with ceremonies that mixed military pomp with the traditional rites of his Xhosa abaThembu clan.

The funeral drew 4,500 guests, from relatives and South African leaders to Britain's Prince Charles, American civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

"The person who is lying here is South Africa's greatest son," Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy leader of South Africa's ruling ANC party who was acting as one of the masters of ceremonies, said as the service got under way.

Fellow anti-apartheid veteran Archbishop Desmond Tutu was also among those who arrived shortly after dawn at a vast, domed tent erected in a field near Mandela's home, having resolved a last-minute mix-up over his invitation.

As Mandela's flag-draped coffin was borne from the house on a gun-carriage, a battery of cannons positioned on the hillside fired a 21-gun salute, sending booms echoing across the sun-drenched valley.

The coffin was followed into the huge tent, decked out inside in black, by Mandela's grandson and heir, Mandla, and South African President Jacob Zuma.

It was then placed on black and white Nguni cattle skins in front of a ring of 95 candles as the service started with a choir singing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the evocative national anthem adopted after the end of apartheid in 1994.

Mandela died in Johannesburg on 5 December aged 95, plunging his 53 million countrymen and millions more around the world into mourning, and triggering more than a week of official memorials to the nation's first black president.

As many as 100,000 people paid their respects in person at his lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he had been inaugurated as president, an event that brought the curtain down on more than three centuries of white domination.

When his body arrived on Saturday at his ancestral home in Qunu, it was greeted by ululating locals overjoyed that Madiba, the clan name by which he was affectionately known, had "come home".

"After his long life and illness he can now rest," said grandmother Victoria Ntsingo, as military helicopters escorting the funeral cortege clattered overhead.

"His work is done."