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Updated: 12/15/2013 01:19:01AM

Mandela makes final journey home in SAfrica

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Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, right, Nelson Mandela's former wife, puts her around Nelson Mandela’s widow Graca Machel as they wait for the arrival of the former South African president's casket at the Mthatha airport in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, December 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Pool)

Former South African President Nelson Mandela’s widow Graca Machel, right, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela's former wife, wipe their tears as the former president's casket arrives at Mthatha Airport in Mthatha, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The funeral service for Nelson Mandela will be held in his home town of Qunu on Sunday. (AP Photo/Kopano_Tlape, CGIS)

Nelson Mandela’s widow Graca Machel wipes her eyes while attending a farewell ceremony for former South African President Nelson Mandela from the African National Congress at Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The body of the iconic leader will be flown to Mthatha Saturday and buried in his hometown Qunu Sunday. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Nelson Mandela’s widow Graca Machel wipes her eyes while attending a farewell ceremony for former South African President Nelson Mandela from the African National Congress at Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The body of the iconic leader will be flown to Mthatha Saturday and buried in his hometown Qunu Sunday. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

A hearse carrying the casket of former South African President Nelson Mandela is seen from above as it drives past a bridge en route to Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The body of the iconic leader will be flown to Mthatha Saturday and buried in his hometown Qunu Sunday. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

A child draped in the South African national flag gestures while taking a photo of the procession as the body of former president, Nelson Mandela arrives at the Waterkloof Air force base in Pretoria Saturday Dec. 14, 2013 from where it will be transported to Qunu for a state funeral on Sunday. (AP Photo)

People wait on the roadside to see a hearse carrying the casket of former South African President Nelson Mandela arrive at Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The body of the iconic leader will be flown to Mthatha Saturday and buried in his hometown Qunu Sunday. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

A mourner wears a pin with a photo of Nelson Madela while attending a farewell ceremony for former South African president from the African National Congress at Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

People hold hands as the hearse carrying the remains of former South African President Nelson Mandela proceeds to Mandela's hometown and burial site in Qunu, South Africa, Saturday Dec. 14, 2013. The iconic leader will be buried on Sunday close to his house. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

President Barack Obama waves standing next to the sign language interpreter after making his speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. South Africa's deaf federation said on Wednesday that the interpreter on stage for Mandela memorial was a 'fake', (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

President Barack Obama waves standing next to the sign language interpreter after making his speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. South Africa's deaf federation said on Wednesday that the interpreter on stage for Mandela memorial was a 'fake', (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

President Barack Obama waves standing next to the sign language interpreter after making his speech at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium in Soweto near Johannesburg, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. South Africa's deaf federation said on Wednesday that the interpreter on stage for Mandela memorial was a 'fake', (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

People wave goodbye as the funeral procession carrying the remains of former South African President Nelson Mandela proceeds to Mandela's hometown and burial site in Qunu, South Africa, Saturday Dec. 14, 2013. The iconic leader will be buried on Sunday close to his house. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong)

People wave at an aircraft carrying the casket of former South African President Nelson Mandela as it takes off from Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. On a final journey to his home village where he had wanted to spend his final days, the remains of Nelson Mandela were honored amid pomp and ceremony Saturday at an air base in South Africa's capital before being loaded onto a plane. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Nelson Mandela's grandson Mandla Mandela, right, watches as local chiefs drape the casket of former South African President Nelson Mandela with a lion skin as it arrives at the Mandela residence in Qunu, South Africa, December 14, 2013. Mandela will be put to rest after funeral services on Sunday. (AP Photo/Elmond Jiyane, GCIS)

Makaziwe Mandela, right, Nelson Mandela's eldest daughter and Ndileka, Mandela's granddaughter, wait for the arrival of the former South African president's casket at the Mthatha airport in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, December 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Pool)

Makaziwe Mandela, right, Nelson Mandela's eldest daughter and Ndileka, Mandela's granddaughter, wait for the arrival of the former South African president's casket at the Mthatha airport in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, December 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Pool)

The casket of former South African President Nelson Mandela on display during a farewell ceremony by the African National Congress at Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The remains of Nelson Mandela were being transferred amid pomp and ceremony to his home village for burial the next day. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The casket of former South African President Nelson Mandela is carried to a military aircraft following a farewell ceremony by the African National Congress at Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The remains of Nelson Mandela were being transferred amid pomp and ceremony to his home village for burial the next day. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

The casket of former South African President Nelson Mandela is carried to a military aircraft following a farewell ceremony by the African National Congress at Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The remains of Nelson Mandela were being transferred amid pomp and ceremony to his home village for burial the next day. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Makaziwe Mandela, right, Nelson Mandela's eldest daughter and Ndileka, Mandela's granddaughter, wait for the arrival of the former South African president's casket at the Mthatha airport in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, December 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Siphiwe Sibeko, Pool)

The casket of former South African President Nelson Mandela is carried to a military aircraft following a farewell ceremony by the African National Congress at Waterkloof Air Base on the outskirts of Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013. The remains of Nelson Mandela were being transferred amid pomp and ceremony to his home village for burial the next day. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA

Associated Press

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QUNU, South Africa — Nelson Mandela came home Saturday.

A hearse carrying Mandela’s body drove into his hometown in rural South Africa ahead of burial Sunday, 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 armored 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 vehicle 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 honored as a leader by placing a leopard skin on the coffin, replacing the flag.

Mandela’s journey started Saturday 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-kilometer (20-mile) voyage toward Qunu. Residents and people who had traveled 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 — it’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 Dec. 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.

A problem that threatened to mar the funeral appeared to be resolved late Saturday night when Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s spokesman said the Nobel prize-winning cleric would attend Sunday’s funeral in Mandela’s home village of Qunu. Earlier Tutu said that he would not attend because he had not been invited or accredited as a clergyman. Spokesman Roger Friedman did not say what brought about the change in Tutu’s plans.

Earlier, Mac Maharaj, a spokesman for the presidency, said Tutu was on the guest list.

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

In Qunu, residents expressed deep affection for Mandela, their beloved native son.

“Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela,” chanted a crowd on a highway near Mandela’s compound.

“My president,” they sang.

There were also old songs of the anti-apartheid struggle.

“Release Mandela from prison,” went the chorus of one.

Many people carried small national flags or banners with a smiling image of Mandela. Periodically, police and other official vehicles passed by, heading to the compound.

Khanyisa Qatolo, 28, was born in Qunu and attended children’s Christmas parties hosted by Mandela at his home when she was a child in the 1990s.

“I remember his smile,” she said. “I miss his smile.”

Qatolo said she was disappointed that local residents would be unable to go to Mandela’s funeral, in line with local custom, and had instead been asked by officials to view the final rites on big video screens in the area.

“The people of the community, they should be there, supporting the family,” she said. “I feel bad not to go there.”

Milly Viljoen, 43, drove 12 hours through the night with a friend to stand on the roadside overlooking Mandela’s compound in Qunu.

‘”It’s befitting to see him to his final resting place,” she said.

Viljoen, a student activist during apartheid, first saw Mandela when he appeared before an enthralled crowd in Cape Town after he was released in 1990. She met him later when he visited the township school where she was teaching. She said: “You couldn’t help but love the man and be touched and hang onto his every word.”

———

Gregory Katz in Johannesburg contributed to this report.


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