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South Africa buries 'greatest son' as Nelson Mandela laid to rest

QUNU, South Africa -- South Africa buried Nelson Mandela on Sunday, leaving the multi-racial democracy he founded without its living inspiration and still striving for the “Rainbow Nation” ideal of shared prosperity he had dreamed of.

The Nobel peace laureate, who was held in apartheid prisons for 27 years before emerging to preach forgiveness and reconciliation, was laid to rest at his ancestral home in Qunu after a send-off combining military pomp with the traditional rites of his Xhosa aba Thembu clan.

As the coffin was lowered into the wreath-ringed grave, three army helicopters flew over bearing the South African flag on weighted cables, a poignant echo of the anti-apartheid leader's inauguration as the nation's first black president nearly two decades ago.

A battery fired a 21-gun salute, the booms reverberating around the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, before five fighter jets flying low in formation roared over the valley.

“Yours was truly a long walk to freedom, and now you have achieved the ultimate freedom in the bosom of your maker,” armed forces Chaplain General Monwabisi Jamangile said at the grave site, where three of Mandela's children already lie.

Among the 450 mourners at the private burial ceremony were relatives, political leaders and foreign guests including Britain's Prince Charles, American civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

Mandela died aged 95 in Johannesburg on Dec. 5, plunging his 52 million countrymen and women and millions more around the world into grief, and triggering more than a week of official memorials to one of the towering figures of the 20th century.

Over 100,000 people paid their respects in person at Mandela's lying in state at Pretoria's Union Buildings, where he was sworn in as president in 1994, an event that brought the curtain down on more than three centuries of white domination.

When his body arrived on Saturday in Qunu, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg, it was greeted by ululating locals overjoyed that Madiba, the clan name by which he was affectionately known, had “come home.”

“After his long life and illness he can now rest,” said grandmother Victoria Ntsingo. “His work is done.”

'Greatest son'

Before the burial, 4,500 family, friends and dignitaries attended the state funeral service in a huge domed tent, its interior draped in black, in a field near Mandela's homestead.

The flag-covered casket was carried in by military chiefs, with Mandela's grandson and heir, Mandla, and South African President Jacob Zuma following in their footsteps.

It was then placed on black and white Nguni cattle skins in front of a crescent of 95 candles, one for each year of Mandela's life, as a choir sang Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the national anthem adopted after the end of apartheid in 1994.

“The person who is lying here is South Africa's greatest son,” said Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy leader of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), who presided over the three-hour ceremony broadcast live across the nation and around the world.

From the Limpopo River in the north to Cape Town in the south, millions watched on television or listened to the radio. In some locations, big screens transmitted the event live.

“Qunu is too far to go, so I gathered with some people here so we can mourn together. I can say he is a hero, a man of the people,” said 29-year-old Message Sibanda, among about 100 others watching in Johannesburg's Sandton financial district.

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People wave goodbye to the late South African leader Nelson Mandela near his burial site in the compound of his former home in Qunu on Sunday. (AFP)

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