Johannesburg - Preparations for one of the biggest funerals in history stepped up a level on Thursday, with the addition of two Gripen fighter jets to monitor the airspace around Nelson Mandela’s Qunu home.
The jets were stationed on Thursday at East London Airport, which was a hive of activity as ANC veterans and other visitors from around the country arrived.
The Mandela family met with local chiefs and members of the community to make final preparations for the traditional burial and the grave-digging process.
Mandela’s remains will on Saturday be transported to Mthatha Airport from Air Force Base Waterkloof near Pretoria, where ANC leaders will bid Madiba farewell.
President Jacob Zuma will participate in the service at Waterkloof around 6am to bid Madiba farewell from Pretoria.
A government spokesman said the SANDF would take charge of the transportation leg of the state funeral.
A military guard of honour will welcome Mandela’s remains, which will be draped in the South African flag.
The SANDF contingent will then perform the ceremonial removal of the remains from the aircraft before the coffin is placed on a gun carriage and transported into a hearse.
The SA Air Force’s Gripen fighter jets are expected to follow Madiba’s remains from Waterkloof to Mthatha, running combat air patrols to enforce the no-fly zone.
They are expected to be armed, and at least one will have a reconnaissance pod.
Some jets may also take part in a flypast at the funeral, and there are expected to be two sets of 21-gun salutes by G6 guns on the ground.
Early on Thursday, two Gripen fighter jet pilots were seen grabbing coffee at a restaurant at East London Airport.
“We’re here to protect the airspace,” said one of the pilots, dressed in a “Gripen team” branded uniform.
The pilots would not be drawn into commenting further.
“We’ve been sworn to secrecy,” added the other pilot.
South Africa bought 26 Gripens as part of the Strategic Defence Procurement Package, or arms deal, in 1999, becoming the Gripen’s first export customer.
Police spokesman Zweli Mnisi, who is also part of the joint operations and communication team, said they were on top of the security plans, but could not give details on the Gripen jets.
“From where I’m sitting we don’t normally give out those kind of details and figures. But there are police in Qunu and Mthatha.
“They (Gripen jets) might stretch and go as far as East London to give us updates,” said Mnisi.
He commended the public in Pretoria and near Qunu for their conduct.
“The story could also focus on behaviour which has been dignified. We are quite satisfied, as the government, as to how things have progressed.
“People are patient with us. There has been no breaking of the law and no major incidents.
“We will also ensure that South Africans are not compromised and other provinces neglected, because this is all happening during the festive season,” added Mnisi.
Extra soldiers are already stationed at a “tent town” in Mthatha, ready for the large number of local and international visitors and journalists.
AbaThembu royal house spokesman Chief Mfundo Mtirara told The Star that the family would meet with local chiefs to discuss some of the logistics.
“I will be able to give more details (on the burial plans) after the meeting,” said Mtirara.