ANC's saint works a miracle: Oliver Tambo's funeral in Wattville offers a striking contrast with ceremonies for Chris Hani. John Carlin reports

IT WAS the most baffling, and perhaps most hopeful, spectacle seen in South Africa in many a day. Half a dozen soldiers of the African National Congress's armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), stood in full battledress at a busy Johannesburg intersection yesterday afternoon directing traffic.

Alongside them, one white traffic officer. Behind, three armoured vehicles and 20 riot policemen, placid as the day was mild, keeping watch.

The occasion was the funeral of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela's predecessor as president of the ANC.

Thousands of ANC supporters were arriving in cars, buses and lorries to attend Tambo's burial in Wattville township, where he once lived.

The ceremony itself had taken place earlier in the day at Soweto's Soccer City stadium, the setting for Chris Hani's funeral two weeks ago. The structures of the two events were the same - speeches, procession, burial - but the tone and the choreography, were different.

For the funeral of Hani, the assassinated idol of the ANC youth, 100,000 people crammed into a stadium designed to accommodate 80,000. Yesterday 20,000 at most turned up. The mood at Hani's funeral had been angry. Yesterday the collective act of mourning for Tambo, who died a natural death, found expression in a celebration, both exuberant and solemn, of a full life bravely lived.

A jazz band played songs to which the crowd danced and swayed. A religious choir performed African dirges and English hymns. Teenage drum majorettes competed for marching space with Umkhonto soldiers in starch-pressed camouflage uniforms - the biggest contingent, about 150, ever seen in public in South Africa. Dignitaries absent from Hani's funeral, wisely dissuaded from coming by the prospect of violence, were there in force.

Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro all sent emissaries. As did dozens more representatives of foreign governments and organisations. Jesse Jackson was there, as was 'Tiny' Rowland, Tambo having benefited from the Lonrho boss's traditional largesse to African leaders.

Mr Mandela's speech was not so much a political harangue as an elegy. Tambo had been his political associate, but also, for 40 years, his closest friend.

'Oliver lived not because he could breathe. He lived not because blood flowed through his veins. Oliver lived not because he did all the things that all of us as ordinary men and women do. Oliver lived because he had surrendered his very being to the people.

'He lived because his very being embodied love, an idea, a hope, an aspiration, a vision.'

Mr Mandela, for whom Tambo has already become fixed as the patron saint of the ANC, sustained throughout the Biblical note.

'As you instructed, we will bring peace to our tormented land. As you directed, we will bring freedom to the oppressed and liberation to the oppressor.

'As you strived, we will restore the dignity of the dehumanised. As you commanded, we will defend the option of a peaceful resolution to our problems. As you prayed, we will respond to the cries of the wretched of the earth.'

When Mr Mandela finished his speech, the little children of the ANC, the uniformed 'Pioneers', came unto him and handed him a scarf in the movement's green, gold and black.

Mr Mandela wrapped the scarf around his neck, over his dark suit and tie, and joined the procession across the grass to the hearse, behind the coffin, draped in the ANC flag, behind a cross held high by the first of a cluster of bishops and church ministers, following Tambo's wife and family.

Outside the stadium, up ahead on the road to Tambo's last resting place, the South African police and the Umkhonto soldiers entered into the spirit of the day, set aside old enmities and worked their small miracle.

(Photograph omitted)