QUNU, South Africa - Speeches, songs and artillery fire rang out across Nelson Mandela's childhood home on Sunday as South Africa said a final farewell to the man who united the country when it teetered on the edge of bloody conflict.
“A great tree has fallen,” said Chief Ngangomhlaba Matanzima during the funeral service that included barnstorming speeches referring to the continent’s anti-colonial struggles, as well as Mandela's impact around the globe.
The funeral drew 4,500 guests to the village of Qunu, from relatives and South African leaders to Britain's Prince Charles, U.S. civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson and talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Retired Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, fellow Nobel peace laureate and close friend of Mandela's, also attended after an apparent misunderstanding about his participation was resolved.
After the main service, a smaller group accompanied Mandela’s coffin as a military guard carried it to a nearby hillside for burial. A more intimate private gathering planned for his body to be lowered into the ground amid prayers, songs and poems about Mandela's life and his achievements.
Air Force helicopters and planes performed a flypast during the burial in the family graveyard.
As Mandela was taken to his final resting place, Zulu tribesmen gathered and started dancing a traditional funeral dance as a tribute.
“Millions of people around the world have had their own Madiba moment,” said trade union leader and politician Cyril Ramaphosa during the earlier gathering held under a cavernous canopy, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
“The person who lies here is South Africa’s greatest son,” he added, standing in front of a platform holding 95 lit candles, one for each of Mandela's birthdays.
Aubrey Shabangu, 57, who spent three years in prison as a political prisoner, traveled more than 700 miles from his home province of Mpumalanga. “I am here to pay my last homage to our leader and comrade Mandela” he said.
Mandela, who died in Johannesburg on Dec. 5, was imprisoned for 27 years for opposing apartheid and emerged to forge a new democratic South Africa by promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. The funeral marks an end to days of official memorials for the man credited with ending the racist white-only rule and who became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1994.
While heavy on pomp and Mandela’s place in history, the ceremony also touched on the personal grief that some were feeling.
Former fellow political activist and prisoner Ahmed Mohamed Kathrada said, “the boxer, the prisoner who easily wielded the pick and shovel” has “left us to join the A-team of the ANC.”
The ANC, or African National Congress, is the formerly outlawed anti-apartheid organization that is now South Africa’s ruling party.
“Farewell, my dear brother, my mentor, my leader,” he said. “My life is in a void and I don’t know who to turn to.”
Mandela's widow and third wife, Graca Machel, wiped away tears as those around her celebrated Mandela's legacy.
The language of apartheid occasionally slipped into a celebration of the defeat of racial segregation, in addition to the Mandela's life. Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda hailed Mandela as "a great freedom fighter," and referred several times to “Boer," which means farmer in Afrikaans and can be used as a derogatory term for white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans.
Mandela's body arrived Saturday in the Eastern Cape village, almost 500 miles south of Johannesburg, where it was greeted by singing and dancing local residents. As police and military helicopters buzzed overhead, the hearse carrying his body rolled with a police escort into this community of homes scattered between green pastures.
As many as 100,000 people paid their respects in person as Mandela's body lay in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria during the week, a symbol of racist white rule that Mandela helped overthrow and where he was inaugurated as president.
During a memorial service on Tuesday, he was lauded as a “giant of history” and “one of the greatest leaders of our time” as tens of thousands cheered and almost 100 world leaders paid tribute to the anti-apartheid icon.
“His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph. Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy,” Obama told the crowd at the 95,000-capacity stadium in Soweto. “The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us.”
Backy Bratu, Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Simon Moya-Smith of NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report. F. Brinley Bruton and Becky Bratu reported from London and New York, respectively.