The coffin of former South African President Nelson Mandela is escorted aboard a military cargo plane after a send-off ceremony at Waterkloof Air Force base in Pretoria. Credit: Reuters
Nelson Mandela's body was being flown on Saturday to South Africa's Eastern Cape region, headed for a state funeral on Sunday in his ancestral village after a send-off for the anti-apartheid hero by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
With revolutionary songs, some raised fists and tributes to "Comrade Mandela", the former liberation movement to which Mandela had dedicated his life said farewell at the Waterkloof airforce base in the capital of Pretoria.
"Go well 'Tata', you have played your part," South African President and ANC leader Jacob Zuma said in a eulogy using the Xhosa word for "father". He recalled Mandela's life as a freedom fighter in the armed struggle against white minority rule, for which he was put in jail for 27 years.
"We will always remember you," Zuma said, before bellowing the ANC struggle slogan of "Amandla" (Power).
The ANC send-off led by Zuma, attended by Mandela's widow Graca Machel and his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, came after nine days of intense and emotion-charged mourning and memorial activities held in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
This included three days of lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria from Wednesday to Friday in which more than 100,000 people queued for hours to say a last personal goodbye to the nation's first black president.
One of Mandela's grandchildren, Mandla, thanked those who had come to pay their respects to the Nobel peace laureate.
"I have witnessed his army, I have witnessed his people, I have witnessed ordinary South Africans who walked this long walk to freedom with him and I can assure the African National Congress today that the future of this country looks bright."
Escorted by fighter jets, Mandela's body was being flown by South Africa's airforce to his Eastern Cape home region, where it would be taken to the family home at Qunu, a village among rolling green hills, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg.
There, a state funeral will take place on Sunday combining military pomp and traditional rites of Mandela's Xhosa abaThembu clan. It will be attended by family members, national leaders and foreign guests including Britain's Prince Charles and U.S. civil rights activist Reverend Jessie Jackson.
In Saturday's ANC homage, the most overtly political event of the mourning period since Mandela died on December 5 aged 95, leaders of the ruling party and allied trade unions hailed Mandela as a determined "soldier" and revolutionary.
They spoke before Mandela's coffin, draped in the green and yellow ANC flag in an airport hangar prepared for the event.
The ANC event was in deep contrast to Tuesday's mass public memorial in Johannesburg where Zuma, who has ruled since 2009, was subjected to a humiliating barrage of boos and jeers, a worrying sign for the ruling party six months before elections.
"WE NEED MORE MADIBAS"
There was no such dissonant note on Saturday, with speaker after speaker hailing the lifelong link between the former president and the ANC which will be one of the party's strongest campaigning pillars for the coming elections.
Representatives from left-wing parties, such as Angola's MPLA, and Ireland's Sinn Fein, attended Saturday's homage.
Zuma, who is widely criticized for being weak and ineffective, addressed the leadership issue in his speech.
"The question is, can we produce as ANC other 'Madibas'?" he asked, using Mandela's Xhosa clan name.
"We need more Madibas so that our country can prosper. Yes we are free, but the challenges of inequality remain."
It is precisely his government's perceived failure to tackle this inequality, manifested in still widespread poverty and chronic joblessness, which has fed dissatisfaction with Zuma and the ANC that will erode their support in the coming vote. But the party that has governed since the end of apartheid in 1994 is expected to comfortably win the elections.
Sunday's funeral at Qunu, planned as more intimate than the mass memorial held on Tuesday attended by a host of world leaders, will bring together members of Mandela's family and Xhosa abaThembu clan and a smaller group of dignitaries.
These include African and Caribbean leaders, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Shariatmadari, Lesotho's King Letsie III and former French Prime Ministers Lionel Jospin and Alain Juppe.
Mandela's casket will be taken in military procession from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape about 45 km to Qunu, allowing locals a chance to say goodbye to their most famous son.
The week of mourning since Mandela's death has not been without controversy.
Besides the booing of Zuma, there has also been a storm of outrage over a sign-language interpreter accused of miming nonsense at the same memorial. The signer has defended himself, saying he suffered a schizophrenic episode.