Johannesburg, Dec. 6: Nelson Mandela’s funeral will be the planet’s biggest since Princess Diana’s, with every living US President and scores of world leaders including the Pope and the Dalai Lama descending on South Africa.
Adding their own sparkle will be global celebrities who each took pride in calling Mandela a friend: U2 front-man Bono, singer Annie Lennox, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and supermodel Naomi Campbell.
The series of engagements to honour the Nobel Peace Prize winner are expected to stretch over nine days till he is laid to rest on December 15. Till then, his body is expected to lie in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the official seat of government, so that the people he led to freedom can file past his coffin and say a last farewell.
Unlike his predecessors as South Africa President, Mandela will not be carried across the city on a gun carriage, to be buried in Die Helde Akker (the Heroes Acre), alongside the diehard apartheid leaders who he fought against.
Mandela will be buried in Qunu in the Eastern Cape, in a family plot alongside the children and cousins who predeceased him, a few hundred metres from the house he once shared with his mother and the house he built himself after being freed from prison in 1990.
The memorial service will be held on Tuesday. It was originally planned in Pretoria for security reasons, but given the unprecedented demand it is likely to be moved to a football stadium in Soweto that can sit 95,000 and was built to house the 2010 football World Cup.
Mandela’s fellow anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, is expected to lead the service where, in habitual African fashion, singing and dancing will play a key role.
As his body lies in state for the next few days, one day will be set aside for the VVIPs from around the globe to steal a last moment alone with the former leader.
The focus will then shift to Qunu, the tiny village 560 miles south. Mandela’s body will be flown to the local airport, Mthatha, from where a full military contingent will accompany the cortege on an 18-mile procession to the leader’s final resting place.
The burial will be in accordance with the traditions of Mandela’s Xhosa tribal roots. It will be a private family event although a handful of the celebrities and dignitaries closest to him may be invited.
Xhosa tradition usually includes the slaughter of a cow or sheep, periods of prayer, singing and silence, and the possessions of the loved one placed inside their grave to help them in the afterlife. As a lover of good food, Mandela is likely to have stipulated that a final feast be held in his honour.
Mandela is understood to have chosen his own hillside burial spot, overlooking the green fields where he tended cattle and played as a boy. It was in Qunu, he said, that he had his earliest and some of his happiest memories.
Visiting Qunu each Christmas for years, he also spent holidays there, often coming to the gate to meet visitors.
A new tar road was recently built linking Mthatha Airport to the village, presumably in anticipation of increased traffic.