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Comrade Nelson Mandela is taken home to Qunu for the final time

Politics simmer as body of former president returns to birthplace

Nelson Mandela was returned to his people today to be buried in the place where he had spent much of his youth; one of the final acts in days of commemoration in which the main theme was his great achievement in unifying a divided nation.

There was, however, a markedly partisan and political feel to what went on before, with the African National Congress bidding farewell to one of its warriors with revolutionary songs and clenched-fist salutes to “Comrade Mandela” as well as Madiba, his tribal name. There were roars of “Amandla”, the cry for power which used to be heard during the struggle against apartheid.

The international visitors this time were not world leaders, but from movements that had shown solidarity, such as Sinn Fein, represented by Gerry Adams.

It was, for many, a moving reminder of how hard freedom had to be fought for, with terrible sacrifices, against a racist, often vicious regime. Mandela’s widow, Graça Machel, was in tears as she was handed the green and yellow colours of the ANC, which had replaced the national flag on the coffin for the ANC special tribute at the Waterkloof airforce base in Pretoria.

Mourners lining the roadside react as the cortège of former president Nelson Mandela passes through (Getty Images)

But there were accusations and recriminations that political grudges had besmirched the farewell to the former president with confusion over whether Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a close friend of Mr Mandela and fellow campaigner against apartheid, would be attending the funeral today or not. Tonight, a presidential spokesman was adamant that he would be there, a claim which clashed with Archbishop Tutu’s earlier statement that he had not received an invitation and that he had no wish to “gatecrash” what was billed as a private family funeral.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mr Mandela described Archbishop Tutu – the fellow Nobel Laureate with whom he stayed on the first night after his release from 27 years of imprisonment – as “a man who had inspired an entire nation with his words and his courage and revived hope during the darkest of times”. The cleric became a trenchant critic in recent times of Jacob Zuma and the ANC government, accusing them of inefficiency and corruption. Archbishop Tutu has also condemned members of the former president’s family for taking legal action against each other while he was gravely ill.

Mac Maharaj, President Zuma’s spokesman, said tonight: “The archbishop is not an ordinary church person, he is a special person in our country and definitely on the list. If there’s any problem we will try to iron that out, but I can assure you that he is on the programme. Certainly he was invited.”

The foreign ministry spokesman, Clayson Monyela, added: “I suspect the issue here is whether he would have provided any official duties as a clergy person. He may have chosen not to attend.”

There had been surprise that the archbishop was not one of the keynote speakers at the memorial service in Johannesburg last week. He had to be brought in to calm the crowd, which had relentlessly booed President Zuma in front of 91 visiting heads of state.

Speaking at the Pretoria airbase today, President Zuma appeared to address whether Mandela’s successors had failed to live up to the standards of leadership set by him. “The question is, can we produce other Madibas?” he asked. “We need more Madibas so that our country can prosper. Yes we are free, but the challenges of inequality remain.”

People wait by the side of the road at Nelson Mandela's body passes through (AP)

Waiting on the roadside in Qunu for the cortege to pass, Neo Melisizwe, a 30-year-old teacher, had no doubts that things have progressively got worse. “People do not like Zuma, but he is not the only one, there are many who think of themselves and not of the country. When you consider how much Madiba suffered, these people are wasting the opportunity he and the others gave them.

“It is one of the reasons, especially, why we must remember Madiba, because we will not have leaders like him again.”

Mr Melisizwe had not heard that Archbishop Tutu was unlikely to attend the funeral. “That is not possible,” he said. “He was second only to Madiba in freeing us.

“I do not know what quarrel he has had with the government, but everyone should put aside their differences at a time like this.”

Around 4,000 dignitaries are expected for the service today. They will include Prince Charles, the Iranian vice-president Mohammad Shariatmadari, former French premiers Lionel Jospin and Alain Juppé, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the former American civil rights leader, and Richard Branson.

After being flown from Pretoria, Mandela’s coffin was escorted by outriders through the streets to Qunu to rest overnight at the royal house of Thembu, to which his family is connected.

The ceremony will be televised, before a private burial among family, friends and tribal elders.

But there was frustration and anger among those waiting that they had not been able to see the body of Nelson Mandela before his burial. The coffin had lain in state for three days in Pretoria and the authorities in Qunu had originally promised that people here would have the same opportunity, with the cortege making a number of stops.

This arrangement, however, was cancelled at the last minute. Harry Andile echoed many in saying: “We are the community Madiba came from, but here, of all places, we have been cheated of the right to see him. These politicians will never get our votes again.”