Plane departs: Hamba Kahle Tata!

The military plane carrying former president Nelson Mandela is en route to Mthatha airport.

The C-130 plane carrying Madiba's coffin is being escorted by two Gripen fighter jets as it heads to Mthatha airport. Picture: Christa Van der Walt/EWN.

JOHANNESBURG - The military plane carrying former president Nelson Mandela has taken off from Waterkloof Air Force Base after a moving and emotional send-off.

Mandela's body is being flown to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape ahead of his official state funeral in the village of Qunu tomorrow.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate died at his Houghton home on 5 December at the age of 95.

Earlier, Madiba's casket was carried by military officials across the tarmac to the waiting C-130 aircraft at a slow march through a guard of honour.

The national anthem played as President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, former president Thabo Mbeki and members of the Mandela family stood in a long row leading towards the plane.

Military officers saluted as the casket passed.

ANC'S EMOTIONAL FAREWELL

This morning, Madiba received a warm and emotional farewell from the ANC, during a special send-off in a hangar at the air force base.

It was a moving morning of song, poems and tributes as the ANC honoured the icon.

His casket was draped in the ruling party's flag.

The event was attended by around 2,000 people including top ANC and government officials, members of Mandela's family including his widow Graca Machel and ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as well as members of the tripartite alliance.

Anti-apartheid activists Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni were also in attendance.

President Zuma, who sang songs praising Mandela, paid tribute to Mandela's legacy and said he was "something special."

He also praised Mandela's focus on the development of the youth through education.

Zuma described Madiba as a man of action and told those gathered that the ANC needed brave leadership during the apartheid years, and Mandela was the best man for the job.

"You needed brave people, people of action and people who could strategise. The only name that was identified by the ANC was Nelson Mandela."

He thanked Madiba's family for sharing him with South Africa and the world under these difficult conditions.

Zuma also extended his gratitude to the international community for their outpouring of grief and condolences.

"I would like to once again thank the international people who have come to mourn with us and the family."

The ANC flag that was covering Madiba's coffin was then folded up and ceremoniously handed to his widow Graca Machel.