The body of former South African President Nelson Mandela was flown from Pretoria, where he had lain in state for three days, to this city in his native Eastern Cape Province Saturday in preparation for a state funeral and burial to be held Sunday.
In an emotional ceremony, the military handed the body of Mandela over to the African National Congress, the party he led to victory as South Africa’s first black president in 1994, ending white rule.
Mourners paid respects at his coffin, draped in the black, gold and green flag of the ANC, at a military base near the capital, Pretoria.
“We are sending you back to Qunu,” President Jacob G Zuma said in his eulogy, referring to the village where Mandela grew up and where he will be buried. “We hope you rest in peace.”
Eight uniformed pallbearers accompanied the coffin, which was draped in South Africa’s national flag, as it was carried to a waiting C-130 military transport plane. The plane was escorted by two fighter jets, lifting off from Waterkloof air base outside Pretoria in bright sunlight.
In Mthatha, the plane was to be greeted with full military honours, and Mandela’s body was set to be paraded through the city so that residents could pay their respects.
Hundreds of residents gathered along the roads leading from Mthatha to Qunu, singing, clapping and waving South African flags, hoping to catch a last glimpse of Mandela as his cortege drove by.
“He is our father; we must welcome him home,” said Boneka Mpopoma, 48, a schoolteacher. She said in the Xhosa culture, it was essential to be buried in the lands of your ancestors. “You must bury him where he was born,” she said. “He must rest with his father’s fathers.”
On Saturday, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he had cancelled plans to attend the funeral of Mandela, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, after learning that his name was not on the list of accredited guests.
“Much as I would have loved to attend the service to say a final farewell to someone I loved and treasured, it would be disrespectful to Tata to gate-crash what was billed as a private family funeral,” he said. “Had I been informed I was invited, there’s no way on earth I would have missed it.”
But government officials said the archbishop, as an eminent citizen of South Africa, was certainly invited and promised to clear up any misunderstanding.