News / Africa

African Traditions, Military Pomp for Mandela Burial

A general view shows funeral preparations being made around the property of late former South African President Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape, South Africa, Dec. 12, 2013.
A general view shows funeral preparations being made around the property of late former South African President Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape, South Africa, Dec. 12, 2013.
Reuters
Nelson Mandela will be laid to rest on Sunday in an elaborate ceremony combining a state funeral and all its military pomp with the traditional burial rituals of his Xhosa clan to ensure he has an easy transition into the afterworld.

Many South Africans will revere Mandela, who during his life became a global symbol of peace and reconciliation, even more now that he has died, since ancestors are widely believed to have a guiding, protective role over the living.

Around 46 percent of the population practices traditional African religions, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a Washington-based research center.

Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel leaves after viewing the casket at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel leaves after viewing the casket at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
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Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel leaves after viewing the casket at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
Nelson Mandela's widow Graca Machel leaves after viewing the casket at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec. 11, 2013.
Mandela, of the abaThembu people and South Africa's first black president, died a week ago at the age of 95. Thousands of people have filed passed his body as it lies in state in Pretoria this week.

He will be buried by his family following their traditional burial rites on Sunday in Qunu, their ancestral home in the rural Eastern Cape province, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg.

If the rites are not carried out, the abaThembu believe the dead will come back in spirit to demand they are performed.

“We as Africans have rites of passage, whether it is a birth, marriage or funeral. Mandela will be sent off into the spiritual world so that he is welcomed in the world of ancestors. And also so that he doesn't get angry,” said Nokuzola Mndende, a scholar of African religion.

“His wrath won't be on the state if these ceremonies don't take place, it will be on his children,” Mndende said.

A man who for many embodied the Christian values of forgiveness, Mandela was the product of Xhosa traditional upbringing and Methodist schooling.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela spoke approvingly of the Xhosa rituals which his mother, a convert to the Methodist faith, resisted but his father followed, presiding over slaughter rituals and other traditional rites.

Cattle slaughter

For the abaThembu, the ritual of accompanying Mandela's spirit will include the slaughtering of an ox in the early hours of Saturday morning before receiving his body, flown in from Pretoria.

The ox meat is then boiled without spices in big, iron black pots in open fires outside.

“On Saturday, once the body has been received, the elders will speak and perform some rituals and then the body will spend the night at the home,” said Chief Mfundo Mtirara, spokesman for the abaThembu royal house.

Soldiers patrol on the edge of the property of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape, Dec. 12, 2013.Soldiers patrol on the edge of the property of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape, Dec. 12, 2013.
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Soldiers patrol on the edge of the property of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape, Dec. 12, 2013.
Soldiers patrol on the edge of the property of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape, Dec. 12, 2013.
In the early hours of Sunday morning, before the funeral officially begins, another ox will be slaughtered as part of the family ritual of saying goodbye.

After that Mandela's body will be handed over to the church and then to President Jacob Zuma for the state funeral.

Finally King Dalindyebo, king of Mandela's clan, is expected to perform salutations to the dead that will send Mandela to the world of the ancestors.

The king's men will then join him in a last salutation before everyone returns home to wash their hands outside the family yard and have lunch.

A week later, the family take part in a ritual to “wash the spades” that dug his grave and, after a year has passed, another ox is slaughtered and the mourners remove their black mourning garb.

South Africa remembers Nelson Mandela

  • A card and note hang on the fence surrounding the Nelson Mandela National Museum, Mandela's former home, in Soweto, Dec. 12, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A young boy traces the letters on the Vilakasi Street sign outside of Nelson Mandela's home in Soweto, now the Nelson Mandela National Museum, Dec. 12, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • Members of the Harley Owners Group, from chapters in Johannesburg and surrounding cities, visited Nelson Mandela's former home in the township of Soweto, Dec. 12, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A brass band marches through the streets in front of Nelson Mandela's home in Houghton, Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A group of mourners dance outside Nelson Mandela's home in Houghton, Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A family takes a photo in front of Nelson Mandela's home, where a makeshift memorial was set up in the street, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • Mourners left flowers, posters, poems and cards, among other things, at a makeshift memorial outside of Mandela's home in Houghton, Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • A memorial site set up in Nelson Mandela Square, outside of the Sandton City Mall in Sandton, a suburb north of Johannesburg, Dec. 9, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • Worshipers at the Melrose Hindu Temple during the national day of worship and prayer for Nelson Mandela, Dec. 8, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • People line up outside of the Union Buildings in Pretoria to sign a condolences book, Dec 6, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)
  • Mourners sign a condolences book outside of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, Dec 6, 2013. (Peter Cox for VOA)

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