National Affairs column
QUNU, SOUTH AFRICA – Ninety-five candles burned, each one signifying a year in a remarkable journey that came to an end Sunday.
Nelson Mandela was remembered as many things by those who knew him well: a prankster, a storyteller, a strapping boxer, the man who wielded the pick and shovel at Robben Island's lime quarry like toothpicks, the man who invited children to his Qunu home at Christmas to ensure each in the village got a gift and a meal.
He was the barefooted schoolboy who grew to become one of the world's best-known figures.
Royalty, heads of state, movie stars, oversized personalities, tribal chiefs, comrades-in-arms and family members made the trek to a giant marquee on the hillside in Mandela's childhood village on a day marked by a heavy air of finality after 10 days of song and celebration.
Villagers and visitors craned for one last look at the coffin as it was taken from view for burial, and the reactions on the side of the road ran the gamut.
Some danced and shouted as cannons boomed a salute to one of the great figures of the past century, watching overhead as a squadron of fighter jets flew in formation, then returned for one last flyover as one jet broke for the heavens in the missing man formation and a bugler played the Last Post.
Another couple, dressed in black for the funeral, stood apart from those who broke into dance and pro-Mandela song. He quietly pulled out a handkerchief to dry tears. She cradled him from behind to ease his grief.
Ambrose Sandamela-Padi and Shannon Duplessis had made the two-day journey by car from Johannesburg to witness Mandela's last minutes. Sandamela-Padi had, like Mandela, headed into exile during the anti-apartheid fight, for five years, first to Swaziland, then the United States, before returning to South Africa in 1992.
"We just hope things will continue to get better and we can build on his legacy,'' he said. "We cannot let his good work go down the drain. But I am optimistic."
To which Duplessis quickly added, "Optimistic, but we must pray.''
Two hours later, a herd of sheep had regained command of the hillside that had been patrolled by much of the 1,200-strong contingent from the South African National Defence Force dispatched to this tiny village for the funeral.
It was as if Mandela had commanded the gods for this 10-day mourning period.
Much of it was marked by rain - a sign of the gods weeping, according to the traditions of his Xhosa clan - but on burial day the skies are supposed to brighten as a welcoming gesture.
Sunday morning in Qunu broke sunny and warm.
The 10 days were also freighted with politics, with the booing of South African President Jacob Zuma at the public memorial last Tuesday for Mandela, and the perceived snub of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a strong critic of Zuma's, who initially said he had been left off the guest list for Sunday's funeral but ultimately attended.
Inside the marquee, there were stories of past struggles, life in exile, political statements, calls to build on Mandela's legacy but also moments of
levity and words from the heart. None was more dramatic than the speech of Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow freedom fighter who spent 26 years at Robben Island with Mandela, whom he calls Madalla, and said his mentor had joined the other members of the "A Team" of the ANC.
Progress has been made, Kathrada said, but not enough. Although South Africans can now live in dignity, too many live in poverty, hunger and ill health; greed and avarice are too prevalent.
"We are infinitely grateful that each and every one of us, whether we are African, white, coloured or Indian, can proudly call ourselves South
Africans,'' said Kathrada, 84. But he then brought tears to those assembled when he recalled the death of another top anti-apartheid leader, Walter
Sisulu, 10 years ago.
"When Walter died, I lost a father. And now, I have lost a brother," Kathrada said. "My life is in a void and I don't know who to turn to."
Mandela's granddaughter, Nandi Mandela, recalled the strict disciplinarian but drew laughter when she recounted one of her grandfather's favourite stories, that of the "dancing chicken."
Mandela, who did not know how to use a knife and fork, made an unfavourable impression at the home of a girl he was courting, because every time he stuck a knife in the chicken it appeared to dance away from him. "Gee whiz, man, every time I cut the chicken, it bounced," he would say in his retelling.
Zuma began his remarks by singing a traditional struggle song: "We, the black nation, are crying for our land, which was taken by the white people."
He also acknowledged the suffering of the Mandela children, whose father was taken from them and who was called "a terrorist" by the apartheid regime.
"They are no doubt truly proud today to be brought to this planet by a man so great and yet so humble."
Somehow I found a story told by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and a pair of boots most poignant.
Kikwete recalled that in the early 1960s, when Mandela was travelling in exile in his country, he would stay at safe houses rather than hotels.
At one such house in 1962, he left his boots behind with a promise to return for them next time he was in Dar es Salaam.
But soon after his return to South Africa, an extended trial and a 27-year prison stay intervened.
When next he visited Dar es Salaam, it was as president of the new South Africa he had created. On that visit the family returned the exile's boots to the new president, 33 years later.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column is distributed through Torstar Syndication Services.