Nelson Mandela’s remains have been returned to his beloved rural childhood village on the eve of a traditional burial, the final leg of his exceptional 95-year journey.
As South Africa prepares to say goodbye to the prisoner-turned-president who led it out of apartheid, a spokesman for Mandela’s fellow Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said he will attend the burial after all, following an outcry when Tutu earlier said he had not been invited.
Tutu, who has been openly critical of the South African government and the Mandela family, said on Saturday morning he did not want to “gatecrash what was billed as a private family funeral”.
But Tutu’s spokesman said late on Saturday that the retired Anglican archbishop would in fact be travelling to the remote eastern village of Qunu early the next day to attend his longtime friend’s burial, in a brief statement that did not explain the change of course.
Mandela will be buried near his homestead in Qunu, ending 10 days of national mourning and global tributes for the icon who transformed his country and inspired the world with his commitment to reconciliation.
The funeral will begin at 8:00am (1700 AEDT) on Sunday with a two-hour ceremony for 5,000 people, with foreign dignitaries expected to include Britain’s Prince Charles.
A funeral cortege with Mandela’s flag-draped casket entered the gates of the homestead Saturday accompanied by a phalanx of military vehicles.
Earlier, a C-130 Hercules transport plane escorted by two fighter jets carried Mandela’s casket from the capital Pretoria to his native Eastern Cape.
The homecoming of Mandela’s body was greeted by thousands of waiting mourners and a full military guard of honour.
A sombre mood soon changed to cheers as the crowd – many dressed in free T-shirts bearing Mandela’s face – welcomed the return of their hero with joy and pride.
Military personnel lined the route, along with small groups of people singing anti-apartheid songs and songs in praise of the revered statesman.
An outcry followed Tutu’s remarks implying he had been snubbed, but the South African government said his name was on the list of accredited guests to attend the ceremony, which is closed to the broader public.
They said no invitation had been sent to any dignitaries but that Tutu was welcome.
Tutu was “number six” on the list of church leaders to attend, said Minister in the Presidency Collins Chabane.
Tutu however, would not take part in the official program, as per talks between the Mandela family and church leaders, the South African government said in a statement.
“The items relating to church leaders was compiled and finalised by church leaders and the family. Government and the ANC had no role to play,” it added.
Sunday’s interment will see Mandela laid to rest in the open spaces of the village that he so longed for during his 27 years in apartheid prison.
Since Mandela died on December 5 at his home in Johannesburg, South Africans have turned out in the pouring rain and blistering sun to pay their respects.
Tens of thousands had packed a soaked stadium in Soweto for a memorial service on Tuesday, and up to 100,000 people filed past his open casket during the three days it was displayed at the Union Buildings in Pretoria – the same venue of his presidential inauguration two decades ago.
President Jacob Zuma, flanked by Mandela’s widow Graca Machel and ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, said South Africa needed “more Madibas” – using Mandela’s clan name.
“Yes we are free, but the challenge of inequality remains,” Zuma said, citing the twin blights of poverty and unemployment.
The burial itself will be a strictly private affair, barred to both the public and the media, at the wishes of the Mandela family.