After the long walk to freedom comes the long journey to rest

Schoolchildren hold candles near a giant portrait of Nelson Mandela in Chennai, India, yesterday. Picture: Arun Sankar/AP

Although South Africa had months, if not years, to prepare a farewell for Nelson Mandela, the 10 days of mourning before his funeral speak of a heartfelt need to hold on to him and all that he represents.

The reluctance to let him depart too soon will see millions attend formal memorials, impromptu street gatherings, and private services in every shanty town and secluded suburb in the country over the coming days.

Before he is finally placed in the red earth, a nation will attempt to commemorate, celebrate, and come to an acceptance of life without the man who shaped its very existence.

Mandela will be buried not in the urban roar of Cape Town or Johannesburg, but in his rural ancestral home of Qunu in eastern South Africa on Sunday, Dec 15.

Before then, there will be a few precious days for his extensive family, close friends, and the elders of the Thembu tribe who have gathered at the Johannesburg residence where he passed away on Thursday night.

Tomorrow has been declared a national day of prayer and reflection, which will also be observed by the South African community in Ireland.

Mandela will then be honoured on Tuesday at an open-air memorial service at Johannesburg’s Soccer City stadium on the edge of Soweto, which has witnessed momentous events in South Africa’s recent history.

It was there that Mandela completed a lap of honour to the ecstatic cheers of a crowd of more than 100,000, who crammed the stalls to hear his first major public address days after his release from prison in 1990. And it was there he made his last major public appearance at the World Cup in 2010.

From there, his remains will be brought to the city of Pretoria, the official seat of the South African government and home of the offices of president which Mandela called his own from 1994 to 1999.

He will lie in state for three days, the first of which will be reserved for dignitaries from home and abroad to pay their respects. Public access will be allowed afterwards, although two days are unlikely to be enough to cater for all who wish to file past his casket and hold in their sights for one last time the face of the man who held their dreams for so long.

President Jacob Zuma, acknowledging the desire of all to feel part of the ceremonies, has declared that, during these days, official memorial services will be held in all provinces and regions.

The return to Qunu will then begin with a journey by air to Mthatha Airport 35km away, before Mandela’s casket is transferred to a cortege to complete the homecoming by roads expected to be lined by thousands.

Mandela’s state funeral the following day will also be a large, though strictly controlled affair, but his burial will be more intimate, reserved for those closest to him.

Poignantly, it will take place the day before Day of Reconciliation, the day inaugurated on Mandela’s election as president to help South Africans recover from the brutality of the past and reinforce their commitment to a shared, peaceful future.

Ireland will be represented at events in South Africa next week by President Michael D Higgins and by Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore.

Flags were lowered to half mast at Leinster House and other public buildings and books of condolence are opening at civic offices around the country for the public to sign.

Tributes continued to be paid here, led by President Higgins, who said: “Nelson Mandela is one of history’s greatest leaders, a man whose unprecedented courage and dedication broke down the cruel barriers of apartheid in South Africa and led the nation into a new and democratic age.”

Former president Mary Robinson described Mandela as the most inspirational person she had ever met.

“He was the best of us. He was the best of our values,” she said.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny also spoke of Mandela’s power to inspire. “The boy from the Transkei has finished his long walk,” he said. “His journey transformed not just South Africa but humanity itself.”

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