Anti-apartheid leader and South Africa’s first black President died in his Johannesburg home on December 5, at the age of 95.
The funeral includes traditions of Mandela’s Thembu clan, as well as a 21-gun salute, brass band and fly over by jets. Elders in traditional funeral attire out of respect for Mandela and his family sang old struggle songs as they lined the road to greet the funeral cortege.
An ox was to be slaughtered, the deceased was wrapped in a leopard skin and a family elder continued to talk to the body’s spirit throughout the service. The occasion also included elements more often seen in a Christian burial and at a state funeral, including prayers and the national anthem.
The leopard skin signifies Mandela’s status as a high-ranking official. Because he was also a former statesman, the casket was covered in the flag.
Following a tradition called Thetha, Xhosa culture requires a family elder to stay with Mandela’s body and explain to his spirit what is happening.
‘When the body lies there, the spirit is still alive,’ the Rev Wesley Mabuza, chairman of South Africa’s Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the right of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, said.
Mandela’s widow Graca Machel arrived ahead of the casket to honor the tradition of being home to receive his body.
As the coffin arrived in the white tent for the state funeral, all guests except the family stood, and the choir sung Lizalis’ idinga Iakho.
It was placed in the centre of the domed tent, on top of a cattle skin. His widow, Machel, and first wife, Winnie Mandela, then walked into the tent hand in hand. His children from both marriages were sat in the front row, with president Jacob Zuma between them.
Family said they had been reuniting by Machel and Winnie’s show of friendship.
A central feature in the tent was a large picture of Mandela, placed behind 95 lit candles, one for each year of his long and full life.
But he left us to ‘join the A-team of the ANC,’ Kathrada said, as he named those who alongside Mandela had struggled for freedom.
He added: ‘It is up to the present generation and generations to come to take up the cudgels when you have left, and take up the challenges South Africa faces today.’
Over the past week it has sometimes seemed that everyone was trying to claim a piece of the great man – and that dignity was sometimes lacking – but he was at last back among his own people. In the little time left before he is committed to the ground today, the elders of his tribe have promised to do things differently.