QUNU, South Africa — They gathered in the rolling green hills of the Eastern Cape on Sunday to return a son to his native soil: princes and presidents, chiefs and priests, celebrities and grandmothers, comrades and cellmates, here to bury Nelson Mandela.
“Whilst your long walk to freedom has ended in the physical sense, our own journey continues,” President Jacob G. Zuma declared in a eulogy for Mandela, a global emblem of struggle and reconciliation, at a state funeral in this far-flung village. “As you take your final steps, South Africa will continue to rise.”
The ceremony began in a cavernous dome housing thousands with choirs and television cameras, prayers, and memories.
The funeral — the final parting after celebrations and memorials that consumed the land since Mandela died Dec. 5 after months of illness and decline — left his country poised on the cusp of a post-Mandela era that seems certain to test the durability of his legacy.
About 5,000 people attended the state funeral, but millions more watched it on television.
The event knitted together the many strands of his life. In addition to the full pomp of state ceremonies, complete with goose-stepping soldiers, 21-gun salutes, and jet fighter formations, the service included Christian prayers — Mandela was a lifelong Methodist — and traditions and rituals of the AbaThembu clan into which he was born.
Indeed, long before he became a freedom fighter, a fugitive, the world’s most famous political prisoner, and then the embodiment of forgiveness and reconciliation, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a boy of the Thembu royal family.
His attachment to Qunu, the place where he spent most of his childhood, was so deep that he used to tell his daughter Makaziwe, the eldest of his surviving children, that “if I am not buried there, my bones will shake,” she said in an interview this year.
Mandela spoke often of his idyllic boyhood, spent play-fighting with sticks, herding cows, sliding over and over again down a huge, flat rock on a hillside with his friends “until our backsides were so sore we could hardly sit down,” as he said in his autobiography.
He wrote of how he learned to lead by watching the king of the AbaThembu.
“I always remember the regent’s axiom,” he wrote. “A leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”
Other values he learned here shaped him. The notion of ubuntu, which has many meanings but usually signifies the idea that many together are stronger than one alone, became an essential axiom of the African National Congress, the party he led to victory in 1994.
Three of his children are buried here: a daughter, Makaziwe, who died at 9 months; his eldest son, Thembi, who died in a car crash in 1969, while Mandela was on Robben Island; and his son Makgatho, who died of complications from AIDS in 2005.
Though less visible than the military honors and Christian hymns that accompanied the funeral, Thembu rituals were a vital part of the proceedings. When Mandela’s body arrived at his home, the chief and the king of the AbaThembu kingdom, a Methodist priest, and his family were there to welcome him with prayer and song.
On Saturday night, Mandela’s body lay in his bedroom, said Bantu Holomisa, a family friend and political leader.
Bringing a body home before burial is an important part of the tradition here. The family and elders need to talk to the body, as part of saying farewell before conveying it to its resting place. It is also important that the body spend time in the house, she added, “to connect with the spirits in the house.”
Nobongile Geledwana, a Qunu native, scrubbed clothes in a tub in her yard during Mandela’s funeral. Like many villagers, she was among those who did not receive a credential to attend the funeral. Yet she could not help but think how much Mandela would have appreciated the attention to tradition that was being paid in his death.
Funerals here are not simply a time to celebrate a person’s life; they are a forum for recounting one’s story, whatever path he or she may have followed. Speakers are called from all parts of the person’s life. That tradition was on vivid display in the marquee where Mandela’s state funeral was held.
Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow defendant in the treason trial that sent Mandela to prison for 27 years, said in an emotional address that Mandela had united a divided nation.
“Today, mingled with the grief is the enormous pride that one of our own has during your life, and now in your death, united the people of South Africa and the entire world on a scale never experienced before in history,” Kathrada said.
Joyce Banda, the president of neighboring Malawi, gave a plain-spoken and heartfelt tribute to Mandela as an exemplar for African leaders.
“I learned leadership is about loving the people you serve and the people you serve falling in love with you,” Banda said. “It is about serving the people with selflessness, with sacrifice, and with the need to put the common good ahead of personal interests.”