It’s dusk on a Friday evening in Qunu, and the N2 highway is the village’s most happening scene. The locals linger at the road’s edge, forming a scattered crowd that includes gossiping grandmothers, flirtatious teenagers—and an entire flock of sheep. This is the village that raised Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s favourite son and first democratic president. He spent his earliest years on the edges of this same road, chasing friends up these rolling hills and minding the livestock that is still raised here—sheep, cattle, goats and chickens. But today, the youngsters at the roadside wear Converse sneakers, listen to Rihanna, and take pictures with their cellphones. “Put it on Facebook!” they insist when they see a shot they like.
Even in Qunu, which lies in one of the most remote and underdeveloped parts of South Africa, traditional Xhosa culture has adjusted to match the modernizing country. A newly married woman in the village still wears the wrap skirt and headdress that signify her status—unless she’s going into the city to work, in which case she can slip into a pair of pants. But one tradition that hasn’t changed is the custom that says a Xhosa man must be buried at home. This may prove a clashing point in South Africa one day soon, when the country buries its most celebrated citizen.
Mandela turned 92 on July 18, and looks increasingly frail in his public appearances. At the World Cup’s closing ceremony on July 11, he was driven around the pitch in a golf cart, to the roar of an ecstatic crowd. The Nelson Mandela Foundation, the family’s charitable organization, has reportedly finalized the icon’s funeral arrangements—but it has not released any details.
As a former president, Mandela is entitled to a state funeral. Pretoria, the country’s capital, would be a practical and appropriate choice, capable of accommodating the flights and stays of the thousands of dignitaries expected to come pay their respects to the Nobel laureate. But as a Xhosa man, Mandela’s funeral service and burial should be held at home. This tradition is tremendously important to the locals who want to honour his life. Qunu native Beauty Mnyanda, 53, credits Mandela for her freedom to go and work abroad as a nurse in Britain. Under apartheid restrictions, the mobility of black South Africans was severely restricted. “He means life to us,” she says. “All the things we have now, he gave us. Water. Electricity. The freedom to fulfill our goals.”
“Dignity,” adds her 22-year-old daughter, Avela.
This isn’t Pretoria, but the locals believe it’s the right place for the funeral, and they’re quietly preparing for it. Zimisile Gamakulu, 44, works as a tour guide at Qunu’s Nelson Mandela museum. He points to the Tuscan-style residence that Mandela maintains here. That is where the funeral service should be held—on his land, underneath a tent, he explains. There is an empty plot next to the house where cars can park, and animals can be slaughtered. A proper Xhosa funeral feast requires enough cattle and sheep to feed all the guests.
Local and international media organizations think the people of Qunu might have it right. The South African Broadcasting Corporation has already secured all the dormitory-style rooms at the museum, where a viewing platform overlooks the small Mandela family cemetery. This is where Nelson Mandela’s parents, sister, daughter and two sons are buried, and where it is believed he will also be laid to rest. Other news outlets, including CNN, have approached local villagers about renting out their homes for reporters and their equipment.
But Mandela isn’t a celebrity here, Gamakulu says. He is one of their own. When he was released from prison in 1990, he returned to Qunu for the traditional cleansing ceremony, which washes someone who has been to prison of bad luck. “He respects his tradition, and I think the government should respect that if they want to honour him.” When the day comes, no matter where the service is held, Gamakulu says he won’t see it as an occasion for mourning. “We should not be sad on that day. We should celebrate his life. Because he has done a lot for us.”