In mourning: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, left, the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela, and his widow, Graca Machel, wipe their tears upon their arrival with his remains at the airport in Mthatha yesterday.

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Mandela’s final journey home

 Nelson Mandela came home yesterday.A hearse carrying his body drove into his hometown in rural South Africa ahead of burial today, returning the country’s peacemaker to the place where he had always wanted to die.

It was here in Qunu that Mandela roamed the hills and tended livestock as a youth, absorbing lessons about discipline and consensus from traditional chiefs.

From here he embarked on a journey—the “long walk to freedom”, as he put it—that thrust him to the forefront of black South Africans’ struggle for equal rights that resonated around the world.

As motorcyclists in uniform and armoured personnel carriers escorted the vehicle carrying Mandela’s casket to the family compound, people lining the route sang, applauded and, in some cases, wept.

“When I saw the hearse passing, I couldn’t hold my excitement. I felt like I was holding him by the hand,” said Norma Khobo. “It was very exciting, I saw him!”

The hearse carrying Mandela’s casket, covered with a national flag, arrived at the family compound under cloudy skies at 4 p.m. It was accompanied by an enormous convoy of police, military and other vehicles, and a military helicopter hovered overhead.

According to Xhosa tribal tradition, Mandela was honoured as a leader by placing a leopard skin on the coffin, replacing the flag.

Mandela’s journey started yesterday with pomp and ceremony at an air base in the capital before being flown aboard a military plane to this simple village in the wide-open spaces of eastern South Africa.

At the Mthatha airport Mandela’s casket was welcomed by a military guard and placed in a convoy for the 32 kilometre voyage toward Qunu. Residents and people who had tra­velled for hours thronged a road leading to Qunu, singing and dancing as Mandela T-shirts were handed out.

“We got up this morning at 2 a.m. and drove from Port Elizabeth—t’s about seven hours—and we got here now. We’re waiting on to show our last respects to Madiba,” said Ebrahim Jeftha, using Mandela’s clan name.

Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, tearfully embraced at Mthatha airport when the casket arrived.

Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years for opposing racist apartheid and emerged in 1990 to forge a new democratic South Africa by promoting forgiveness and reconciliation.

He became president in 1994 after South Africa’s first all-race democratic elections.

The late president died in his Johannesburg home on December 5 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.

When Mandela’s body arrived at Mthatha airport, soldiers in full dress regalia, male and female, were stationed on foot on either side of the road as cows grazed nearby.

Local residents lined the route, shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas.

Mandela had longed to spend his final months in his beloved rural village, but instead he had spent them in a hospital in Pretoria and then in his home in Johannesburg, where he had remained in critical condition, suffering from lung problems and other ailments, until his death.

There was a surprise announcement in the plans for today’s funeral in Mandela’s home village of Qunu, as retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu said he would not attend because he had not been accredited as a clergyman.

“Much as I would have loved to attend the service to say a final farewell to someone I loved and trea­sured, it would have been disrespectful to Tata to gatecrash what was billed as a private family funeral. Had I or my office been informed that I would be welcome, there is no way on earth that I would have missed it,” Tutu said.

Mac Maharaj, a spokesman for the presidency, said Tutu is on the guest list and he hopes Tutu will attend.

“He’s an important person and I hope ways can be found for him to be there,” Maharaj said.

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