Buried in splendour

2013-12-14 00:00

NELSON Mandela will be buried to the thunder of fighter jets — and the whisper of words like these: “Daddy, we are taking you to your final house, beneath the earth”.

Yesterday, the sleepy countryside around Qunu in Transkei in the Eastern Cape looked like a country under sudden military occupation, with vast bus convoys of soldiers, Grippen jet planes, massed ranks of emergency vehicles and fleets of speeding BMW 4x4s — each carrying VIPs — rushing to their duty stations for tomorrow’s state funeral.

Despite hosting only 5 000 mourners within a huge new pavilion on Mandela’s farm, the historic funeral is to be so intensely watched that government spokesperson Neo Momodu yesterday warned of steps to prevent “stampede” casualties even among the 4 000 journalists gathered.

At the roadside, hundreds of rubbish bags piled up after a blitz on the Transkei’s notorious plastic bag litter, while maintenance teams painted white centre lines on today’s 40 km procession route from the airport to Mandela’s pale brick country house.

A detour through the Mthatha city centre, which is expected to include a 15-minute stop near the Mthatha stadium, will take the body down York Road — which Mandela remembered travelling “with a rush of familiarity” in the late fifties after 13 years in exile. Over 11 800 soldiers have been deployed for duty for tribute events around the country.

Family spokesperson Bantu Holomisa told Weekend Witness that various traditional burial customs would be observed and that the ritual, repeatedly carried out this week, of informing the body where he was being taken would also likely be the last thing said to Mandela.

Madiba would be told: “Daddy we are taking you to your final house — that means the cemetery — and you will be free to join your branch.”

He said a military chaplain would lead the service. However, he said the event’s status as state funeral meant that “by noon the service must be over”.

Today, at roughly 10 am, Mandela’s body — accompanied by his grandson, Mandla Mandela, and traditional leaders — will arrive at Mthatha airport, where the hallway between departures and arrivals was yesterday lined in ANC flags. The controversial AbaThembu king, Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, will reportedly greet Mandela’s body at the airport by repeatedly calling out his clan name: “Ah! Dalibhunga!”

Yesterday, commercial planes disgorged dignitaries like Communications Minister Yunus Carrim and military C-130 aircraft delivered ranks of soldiers in camouflage.

An Agusta battlefield helicopter — potentially a platform for security force snipers — buzzed around. One military pilot told Weekend Witness that tomorrow’s funeral would feature a fly-over by Grippens, Astra training aircraft and helicopters.

Today’s vast entourage — headed by police outriders and ambulances — will pass thousands of local mourners in a “human chain”, along the R61 airport road, in the city centre and along the N2 to Qunu. The N2 was entirely sealed to normal traffic for about 150 kilometres, from Mthatha to at least Idutywa, from 9 pm last night. Dignitaries — including Prince Charles and United States civil rights icon Jesse Jackson — are expected to fly in to East London.

Today, an array of specialist service providers will move in to the massive white pavilion at the house, including health and hygiene inspectors, and a food safety team, co-led by an expert from Scottburgh, near Durban. The expert, who declined to give her name, said: “Imagine a girl from Scottburgh High School having a role at an historic event like this. I’m sad, but we’re proud to be involved.”

GCIS spokesperson Brian Dube confirmed that the bomb squad would be among a long list of specialised security units at the site.

Yesterday, Mandela’s great-niece, Mqungu Anelisa (18), who lives in a neighbouring house within Mandela’s compound, told Weekend Witness she would “definitely be wearing black” tomorrow, and hoped for the chance to lay flowers or “some other memento of caring” at the grave site.

“Make no mistake, we are in mourning. We have lost the man who gave us advice. He used to touch the top of my head and kiss my forehead. I’ll miss those gestures so much,” said Anelisa.

Another grand-niece, Mqholo Avela (16), who shares the same house, said she had not been able to visit the main house at all this week “because we are young family members and we have been informed that only senior family can be at the house due to the space”.

Although a scheduled dress-rehearsal was delayed yesterday morning, a vast convoy of police and soldiers — carried in 23 chartered buses and two brown army buses — gave a sense of the stunning scale of today’s procession.

Among the vehicles were KwaZulu-Natal emergency services ambulances, military health services vehicles and mysterious government sedans.

An astonishing variety of emergency lights flashing between the peach and green huts of the Transkei created the full rainbow of colour in the drab countryside: the orange of construction vehicles, blue and yellow of police, red of dozens of ambulances, magenta for government vehicles and even flashing green lights were seen on some official cars. Green is a colour normally seen only on civil defence vehicles in the past.

Despite eight years of planning via a committee, which featured Holomisa, family members, traditional leaders and Thabo Mbeki, a frenzy of last-minute fixes were being made yesterday. Traffic lights, which had been out all week on the N2, were finally repaired at 10.30 am.

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