QUNU, South Africa — The final journey took many hours and covered many hundreds of miles. Nelson Mandela was honored before his burial with stirring eulogies and soulful music, escorted by presidents and princes, paupers and billionaires.
His remains were laid to rest during a simple burial ceremony on the green hillside of his cherished homestead, next to the graves of three of his children.
“While your long walk to freedom is over, our own journey continues,” South African President Jacob Zuma said in his eulogy. “We dare not reverse your achievements. . . . As you take your final steps, South Africa will continue to rise.”
The ceremony was a meld of Christian and African traditions, at times solemn and at times joyful.
There was unity among Mandela’s family members inside the tent, with no sign of the public feuds that erupted this year over his wealth and legacy. Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, walked with his widow, Graça Machel. The audience included both critics and allies of the ruling African National Congress, Mandela’s political party. Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the giants of the fight against apartheid and a close friend of Mandela’s, attended despite saying earlier that he would skip the ceremony because his name was not on the list of accredited guests.
In his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at 95, described his early years in Qunu as the happiest times of his childhood. It was to Qunu that he retired when he left public life after serving as South Africa’s first black president.
“He meant a lot to us,” said Nomfezeko Billie, 26, who owns a small boutique. “He freed us from the bondages of the white people.”
Mandela’s last journey began at a military air base in the administrative capital, Pretoria, where his body had lain in state for three days. His coffin was flown to Mthatha Airport in the Eastern Cape on Saturday afternoon, escorted by fighter jets. It was placed in a hearse and escorted 20 miles to Qunu by a convoy of police and military vehicles. Crowds thronged the road, carrying banners and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Mandela’s image.
Family members waited at the homestead to receive Mandela’s body; some stayed with the coffin overnight, in accordance with the traditions of the AbaThembu clan, in which Mandela and his family are considered royalty.
Tribal chieftains spoke to Mandela’s body, members of the clan said, relaying messages from their community because Mandela’s spirit will be representing them in the next world. “They are going to send messages with the elders, so the ancestors will welcome him,” said Margaret Mtikrakra, a clan member.
A mourning period will follow the burial, and more traditional rituals will be conducted in the weeks and months ahead, including some meant to bring Mandela’s spirit back to protect the family.
Mandela’s burial place is next to the graves of three of his children. A daughter, Makaziwe, died in infancy. His eldest son, Thembi, was killed in a 1969 car accident. And another son, Makgatho, died in 2005 of complications from AIDS.
In an emotional speech at the state funeral, Ahmed Kathrada, a close friend who was jailed with Mandela on Robben Island, implored young people to carry on Mandela’s core goals of eradicating poverty, fighting for human rights, and opposing corruption, xenophobia, sexism and racism.
Zuma, who is facing allegations of corruption and was booed during a massive memorial service Tuesday, was warmly received when he opened his eulogy by singing “Thina Sizwe,” a song about the struggle to liberate blacks from white rule. Many in the audience joined him, singing a spontaneous harmony.
A traditional praise poet elicited clapping and cheers as he lauded Mandela using an art form originally known as a way to hail tribal chiefs. It has been adapted to recount the deeds of activists against apartheid.
Granddaughter Nandi Mandela described how her grandfather invited children by the thousands to his homestead at Christmastime and gave them gifts. She recalled her grandfather once shocking hosts at a dinner party by saying he wanted to go to the kitchen and thank the staff.
“We shall miss your voice, we shall miss your laughter,” Nandi Mandela said.
Joyce Banda, president of Malawi, said Mandela was a great inspiration to her when an attempted coup in her country nearly deprived her of the presidency. She said she drew strength from Mandela when she had to forgive and work with her former enemies.
Mandela “championed the freedom of not only South Africans but also of all Africans,” Banda said, adding that he “taught us that even when the challenges of life seen insurmountable, with courage and determination, we can overcome the evils of our societies.”
After the ceremony, about 450 relatives, heads of state and friends walked out of the tent and toward the burial site. The flag-draped casket was carried on a gun carriage accompanied by a military marching band. The burial was not televised.
Most residents of Qunu were not permitted to attend the state funeral, which some said they found disappointing. “We are Mandela’s people. We are from his village. Why can’t we go?” said Siphokazi Gqubantshi, an 18-year-old student who lives with her family across the road from the homestead and visited Mandela there years ago.
“He would hug all the children,” she recalled. “We were all inspired by him.”
Some residents said they would remember Mandela for the day-to-day improvements in their lives. Under apartheid, Qunu was particularly ignored by the government because of its links to Mandela. Today, most houses there have electricity and running water via outdoor taps.
On Vilakazi Street in Soweto, where Mandela lived before going to prison, Nhlanhla and Amos Khumalo watched the funeral on television at Thrive cafe with their teenage sons.
“We thought we should bring the kids by to see his house because they have never been here,” said Nhlanhla, a hospital administrator. “It’s sad. We have lost an icon. I don’t think there will be another like him for a hundred years.”
Mufson reported from Johannesburg.