Pretoria - Nelson Mandela embarked on the final leg of his exceptional 95-year journey on Saturday, with his remains on their way to be returned to his rural childhood home for traditional burial.
The flag-draped coffin with the body of South Africa's first black president was taken early in the morning to the Waterkloof air force base near Pretoria, where tens of thousands had seen him lie in state since Wednesday.
Mandela's widow Graca Machel and his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were at the base with other family members, top government officials including President Jacob Zuma and invited foreign guests like US civil rights activist Jesse Jackson.
After the ceremony at the base organised by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which Mandela once led, his body was to be flown to Qunu in Eastern Cape province.
Since his death at his Johannesburg home on December 5, South Africans have turned out in pouring rain and blistering sunshine to say goodbye to the anti-apartheid icon who transformed their country and inspired the world.
Tens of thousands packed a soaked stadium in Soweto for a memorial service Tuesday and up to 100,000 people filed past Mandela's open-casket for the three days it was displayed at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where he was inaugurated two decades earlier.
The huge numbers of people meant that many had to be turned away, leading to scuffles with police on Friday as frustrated mourners struggled for a final glimpse of the prisoner turned president who led them out of the apartheid era.
When his casket arrived at Waterkloof, the South African flag was replaced by the ANC colours for a part religious-part political ceremony of songs and speeches by ANC leaders.
Mandela's favourite poem “Invictus” was printed on the back of the programme and a verse was read out during the service.
In a speech, Mandela's grandson Mandla recalled how as a young child he would hear people in the then blacks-only township of Soweto shouting Amandla! (power) and “Viva Mandela”.
“I though I must be a very popular kid,” Mandla joked.
South Africa has lost its talisman at a time when his “Rainbow Nation” struggles against glaring inequalities, but Mandla -- an ANC member of parliament - said Mandela's legacy was secure.
“I have witnessed ordinary South Africans who walked this long walk to freedom with him ... and the future of this country looks bright,” he said. - AFP