QUNU, South Africa -- South Africans buried their anti-apartheid hero, Nelson Mandela, in the rolling green Eastern Cape hills where he was born, after a stirring ceremony marked by stories of his mischievous side and his love of children.
President Jacob Zuma stood and sang in his rich, mellow voice in tribute to Mandela, and the mourners rose as one and joined him, the harmony rising into the black-domed roof of a marquee the size of a football field.
One of Mandela’s oldest friends, Ahmed Kathrada, a onetime prison comrade, conveyed the nation’s devastating sense of loss.
Choked with emotion, Kathrada said he lost a father when anti-apartheid hero Walter Sisulu died. "Now I have lost a brother. My life is a void. I don't know who to turn to," he said, his voice broken with grief.
Accompanied by a mournful hymn, Mandela’s coffin was borne from the marquee after the funeral service. The casket, covered in the South African flag, made its final journey uphill to the burial place, where it was carried by pallbearers to the grave.
A 21-gun salute rang out as South African air force jets shrieked overhead, and echoing notes of the Last Post rose before the coffin was lowered into the earth.
“When the coffin went down, I felt as if it was the end of my life,” said Neziwe Geledwana, 20, of Qunu, who watched the service at her neighbors’ house on television. “I had a bad feeling but I accept that he’s gone. He will not come back.”
Zuma, who was booed at Tuesday’s memorial service and criticized for a flat, nervous speech at that time, took a different approach Sunday. He electrified the mourners with his singing and struck a simpler, more personal note in his speech describing Mandela’s enduring hatred of racial discrimination.
“You forgave those who took away most of your adult life and who dehumanized the majority of your compatriots,” Zuma said.
"Tata, it has been a long, painful week for us, your people, your comrades, your relatives, your friends," he said, using the affectionate term for “Father” that most South Africans use for Mandela. He paid tribute to the tens of thousands of people who queued up to see Mandela lying in state from Wednesday to Friday, if just for a moment.
Zuma pledged to follow Mandela's example and work to eliminate poverty and inequality.
"We want today to express two simple words: thank you — thank you for being everything we wanted and needed as a leader during a difficult period of our lives," he said.
Nandi Mandela portrayed her grandfather as loving, mischievous, fun and full of love for his family.
She said her grandfather made sure every member of the extended family got a decent education. He put on a Christmas party for all the children in the village every year, making sure each child got a gift and Christmas lunch. When it became impossible for him to put the lunch on out of his own pocket, he persuaded local businesses to contribute.
"We also want to do good because he has led by example and doing good," she said.
She said Mandela lost the power of speech a year ago, and that his family missed hearing his voice and listening to his stories.
“He was a lot of fun to be around. He was a great storyteller. At dinner he liked telling stories about his childhood and he preferred telling stories laughing at himself,” she said.
He often entertained the family with one story that involved trying to spear a piece of chicken on a plate, in front of a girl he wanted to impress, only to have it skid away repeatedly.
At the back of the stage, 95 candles were lighted before dawn, one for each year of his life. The coffin was placed in front of the stage throughout the service, as speakers paid tribute. A recording of young people singing was played, to mark his love of children.
African leaders such as Malawian President Joyce Banda and Tanzanian President Kikaya Kikwete paid tribute.
Former Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda, who wasn’t on the program, was called up and bounded onto the stage with stories of the humiliations apartheid leaders meted out to black South Africans. He said Mandela practiced the Christian ideal of loving other people.
Mourners including members of the extended family, ANC stalwarts, African leaders, princes and celebrities. They started arriving just after dawn at his homestead in Qunu, Eastern Cape. Britain's Prince Charles and the Rev. Jesse Jackson were there, as were celebrities Richard Branson and Oprah Winfrey.
Mandela died at home surrounded by members of his family last week, after a series of lung infections.