JOHANNESBURG – The remains of Nelson Mandela were transferred amid pomp and ceremony early Saturday to an air base for a farewell from the African National Congress before being flown to his home village for burial the next day.
The military handed over Mandela’s flag-draped coffin to the ANC, the liberation movement-turned ruling party that Mandela once headed, at a solemn ceremony at Waterkloof air base in Pretoria that was broadcast live on South African television. The proceedings included a multi-faith service and a musical tribute to Mandela.
Meanwhile, at the airport near Mandela’s simple village of Qunu in eastern South Africa, there was a buzz of activity, with military vehicles including SUVs and armored personnel carriers driving around as anticipation built over the coming-home of South Africa’s most famous figure.
At Waterkloof, South African President Jacob Zuma praised Mandela in a detailed recounting of the struggle against racist white rule. He said Mandela had the rare ability to put theory into practice. He also described Mandela coming to Johannesburg from the countryside as a young man and bringing discipline and vision to the long and difficult anti-apartheid movement.
Zuma led the group in song after his speech.
The high-level sendoff ceremony included former President Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s widow Graca Machel and his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, as well as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Other members of the extended Mandela family also attended.
Mandela’s favorite poem, “Invictus”, was printed on the back of the program.
The late president’s remains were returned to military control later Saturday morning. The body will then be flown to the Eastern Cape in preparation for Mandela’s funeral the following day.
Mandela’s casket is expected to arrive at Mthatha in the Eastern Cape Saturday afternoon and to be greeted by a full military ceremony.
Rituals will also be performed before a motorcade takes the casket from Mthatha to the village of Qunu where Mandela will be buried on Sunday.
The public has been invited to view the cortege as it makes its way to Qunu. The body will be taken to the Mandela family farm, where more rituals will be performed.
A night vigil by the ANC is planned at Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha on Saturday, with party leaders and government officials honoring Mandela on the eve of his burial.
The late president died last week at age 95. His body lay in state for three days this week, drawing huge crowds of South Africans who mourned his death and celebrated his successful struggle against apartheid.
Many were disappointed when they could not view his remains because long lines and traffic problems meant that thousands had to be turned away without paying their final respects.