Madiba’s resting place of rolling hills

2013-07-07 14:00

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Wherever Mandela is buried will become a pilgrimage site. Charl Blignaut visits the two gravesites in Qunu.

From the koppie behind Madiba’s Qunu home, you can take in the full picture.

There is the large, modern house,

a small dam above it and a highway in front of it.

Beyond that, the scattered village and the hills in all directions.

There is a crisp quality to the air here, a vastness of horizon that offers breathtaking sunrises and sunsets.

The elder statesman would come up here, say locals, and look out on the view.

Many believe his family chose this koppie above his home for his grave – his final resting place.

In the village, just a few hundred metres away, is the modest Mandela family graveyard where Madiba would have been buried had he not grown up to become president and an international superstar.

“My family’s here and I’d like to be buried here,” he told a documentary crew shooting The Living Legend while standing at the family graveyard in 2003.

However, says historian Verne Harris, he told his post-presidential staff as late as 2009 that his family had “discussed the matter and persuaded me to be buried at another site very close to here that is more accessible to the public”.

The memorial garden being prepared on the koppie above the house certainly appears to be part of a simple public place of pilgrimage where those who loved him in life can pay their respects to him in death.

Trucks rumble along where a new entrance to the home is being built and water pipes are being laid, possibly for public restrooms.

There are signs that a nearby area could become a parking lot.

An aloe-lined road leads up to the site, a footpath emerging after 200m or so, climbing up between rocks.

A paved area leads to a gate. Beyond that, men are planting flowers and weeding a rocky indigenous garden about 50m long.

A path slopes downwards from there; the workmen disappear from view.

It is, perhaps, a chamber, a tomb.

It is winter in the Eastern Cape, the maize crops harvested, leaving the earth a dull, brownish green.

Homes dot the hilltops and occasional lush vegetation snakes down valleys.

I land, as future tourists will, on the newly built runway at Mthatha Airport.

Locals mingle with staff at its entrance, which is directly off the runway.

There is no conveyor belt. Luggage is delivered by hand.

The peace is shattered by a row of photographers on an embankment opposite, who train their paparazzi lenses on the building.

Reporters run across the parking lot to meet Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa, head of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA, who just landed.

The world media circus is in town, the waiting game only occasionally interrupted by a departing chief or an arriving Mandela relative.

The press pack will all head for Qunu after this, taking up positions across the road from the Mandela home below the koppie, a row of cameras like a bank of electronic storks on spindly legs.

The roads here are famous for their potholes, but the N2 upgrade has finally arrived in the cluster of villages that constitute Qunu and there is construction all the way from Mthatha.

Next to the highway, simple homes and round huts are painted in pale green, blue or pink, offset by a powdery blue sky.

“Qunu was all that I knew, and I loved it in the unconditional way that a child loves his first home,” Mandela wrote in A Long Walk to Freedom.

Qunu, his place of “rolling hills” where “nature was our playground” is much the same as it has always been – except for the highway that cuts through the middle of it.

Those living close to the Mandela home and museum are slightly better off than the rest. Two schools and a clinic have been built.

There is now a Sasol garage at the entrance to Qunu. Next to it is a banner. It reads: “Enhancing Nelson Mandela’s legacy.”

It invites children to a winter school to revise their learning. Born in nearby Mvezo, Mandela arrived in Qunu as a young boy when his father was deposed as chief.

After he had been sent to the regent at nearby Mqhekezweni for his education, he would still return to Qunu during the holidays to visit his mother.

Leaving the media contingent, we head into the small village where Mandela spent the happiest years of his life.

“Everything we ate we grew and made ourselves,” wrote Mandela. “My mother cooked food in a three-legged iron pot over an open fire.”

Although there is now electricity here, women and girls still cook this way. They cannot afford electricity for everything and, if they have a television, it takes precedence.

Pigs snuffle through the litter. Sheep, goats and cows wander the dust roads and paths, herded by young boys just the way Mandela did from the age of five.

A few weeks ago, young men would have been spotted wearing blankets, heading to initiation school, as Mandela did when he was 16.

Children charge down the road with their “imoto ye draad” (wire cars) and go-karts.

A mealiemeal bag clings to a fence at a homestead where some older boys hang out, kwaito blaring from inside.

One wears a zooty yellow suit jacket matched with blue worker’s trousers.

Nearby, three young boys are engaged in a furious soccer match raging across a yard, deftly defying the broken bottles and sidestepping the emaciated dog that wants a piece of the action. A girl tends to water boiling on the fire.

Two women are engaged in a great scrubbing of shoes. School backpacks are drying in the sun.

Towards the end of the day, we head to the family graveyard. It is there that his grandson Mandla exhumed the bodies of Mandela’s children and took them to be buried in nearby Mvezo, where Mandla lives and where Mandela was born.

If Madiba were to be buried there, alongside his children, Mvezo would become the place of pilgrimage for tourists.

A vast open hill slopes up next to the simple site, cars thundering by on the highway at the top of it.

The family graveyard sports more than a dozen marble gravestones, mostly in black and grey.

The older graves simply bear small rocks.

The names of the Mandela ancestors mark the graves, the largest being a brown and black marble creation for Madiba’s father.

The grass at the graveyard has recently been cut and the most recent grave is just a few weeks old.

A rickety gate keeps visitors out.

It has grown suddenly very cold. Invasive blue gumtrees creak in the wind.

A lamb gambols wildly in a plot alongside and geese honk at the setting sun.

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