SA closes a momentous chapter

Closing one momentous chapter in a tortured history and with a hole in its heart, SA will bury Madiba.

A banner in honour of Nelson Mandela hangs at the Mthatha Stadium during his funeral on 15 December 2013. Picture: Renee de Villiers/EWN.

QUNU - South Africa buries Nelson Mandela on Sunday, closing one momentous chapter in its tortured history and opening another in which the multi-racial democracy he founded will have to discover if it can thrive without its central pillar.

The Nobel peace laureate, who suffered 27 years in apartheid prisons before emerging to preach forgiveness and reconciliation, will be laid to rest after a state funeral mixing military pomp with the traditional rites of his Xhosa abaThembu clan.

The send-off in the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape has drawn 4,500 guests, from relatives and South African leaders to Britain's Prince Charles, American civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

Fellow anti-apartheid veteran Archbishop Desmond Tutu was also among those arriving shortly after dawn at a vast, domed tent erected in a field near Mandela's home, having resolved a last-minute mix-up over his invitation.

Mandela died in Johannesburg on 5 December aged 95, plunging his 53 million countrymen and millions more around the world into grief, and triggering more than a week of official memorials to the nation's first black president.

As many as 100,000 people paid their respects in person to his lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was inaugurated as president in 1994, an event that brought the curtain down on more than three centuries of white domination.

When his body arrived on Saturday at his ancestral home in Qunu, 700km south of Johannesburg, it was greeted by ululating locals overjoyed that Madiba, the clan name by which he was affectionately known, had "come home".

"After his long life and illness he can now rest," said grandmother Victoria Ntsingo, as military helicopters escorting the funeral cortege clattered overhead.

"His work is done."