South Africa prepares to bring Mandela home

The hills of the Eastern Cape roll slowly past Nelson Mandela’s final resting place.

The village of Qunu is rural and remote. Brightly painted circular mud huts – some with thatched roofs, some with corrugated iron – sit yellow, green, pink and brown on the grassy slopes, much as they did when Mandela was born in 1918.

But the soil he will finally rest in on Sunday in is invisibly different. His land is free.

This is the Transkei, a day’s drive and a world away from the LA-without-the-good-bits of Johannesburg. It is a tranquil, poor region where you have to drive carefully in case a goat jumps in front of your car.

Mandela  remembered it with romantic longing in his autobiography, “a beautiful country of rolling hills, fertile valleys, a thousand rivers and streams which keep the landscape green even in winter”.

It is home to the Thembu people, part of the Xhosa nation.

As a child these were Mandela’s horizons – he was groomed to be the advisor to royalty (subject to the colonial powers). He herded cattle on these hillsides, he knocked birds out of these skies with a slingshot, he fished in these streams.

He learned to stick-fight, feinting and parrying, and dreamed of being a famous stick-fighter. The only politics he knew was the rivalry of tribes.

In those days Qunu was home to a few hundred people, living in those beehive-shaped mud huts on floors made from crushed anthills. The women wore blankets dyed in ochre and the water came from nearby streams.

Mandela’s home was three huts: the kitchen, the bedroom and the storeroom.

Now you can’t really squint and see the same thing, though the population has barely grown. Some of the run-down huts have a car outside, and the highway roars through, cutting Qunu in two.

And halfway up the hill, Mandela’s three huts have been replaced by a comfortable home – which is now dwarfed by the big, white pavilion next door which will host his burial service.

In the local culture, death is a time for quiet respect, as the ancestors claim a new companion.

But the town is a hive of activity. Police patrol the roads, blocking anyone from approaching within a kilometre of the Mandela homestead – they even turfed out a group of journalists who had wangled accommodation too close. Workers flow in and out of the site. A flotilla of buses is berthed by the quarantined roadside, ready for dignitaries.

On Saturday Mandela’s body will arrive in the nearby town of Mthatha – weather permitting – and move in a procession through the city centre, before being transported to Qunu Farm.

Local tradition is that burials must take place on a Saturday. The rules have been bent for Mandela, but some of the traditional rituals will happen on the Saturday.

Mandela will receive a Christian burial, but there will also be a Xhosa address to his spirit.

Some of the locals are concerned about how often Mandela’s body is being moved – they believe it makes it harder for the spirit to follow.

Around 4000 mourners will attend the burial service, including Prince Charles and Oprah Winfrey, though only 400 will see the actual burial. The locals are not invited – even those who knew Mandela - they will have to watch from across the valley.

In his autobiography, Mandela vividly remembered leaving Qunu, age 9, after his father suddenly died.

“I packed the few things that I possessed and early one morning we set out ... Before we disappeared behind the hills I turned and looked for what I imagined was the last time at my village.

“I could see the people going about their chores, the stream where I had splashed and played with the other boys … Above all my eyes rested on the three simple huts where I had enjoyed my mother’s love and protection.

“I could not imagine the future I was walking towards could compare in any way with the past that I was leaving behind.”

And, it hardly needs saying, he could not have imagined the circumstances in which he would finally return.

Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide