QUNU, South Africa — A casket carrying the remains of Nelson Mandela arrived at his hometown of Qunu Saturday, the day before he is to be buried in the native ground he loved.
The hearse carrying Mandela's casket, covered with a national flag, arrived at the family compound under cloudy skies at 4 p.m. It was escorted by an enormous convoy of police, military and other vehicles, many flashing emergency lights. A military helicopter hovered near the home.
On the final journey to his home village, Mandela's memory was honored amid pomp and ceremony Saturday 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 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.
Soldiers in full gear, male and female, were stationed on foot on either side of the road from the airport in Mthatha as cows grazed nearby. Some civilians were also already lining 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.