South Africa's allies in its campaign against apartheid, members of the regional bloc SADC and diplomats from the African Union took centre stage in eulogising Nelson Mandela at his funeral in his ancestral home of Qunu.

Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister of Ethiopia, home to the headquarters of the AU and where Mandela had a brief stint in military training, was the first foreign dignitary to address mourners who gathered in a large tent on Sunday to say good-bye for the last time to South Africa's first black president and anti-apartheid hero.

Desalegn called Mandela "one of Africa's greatest sons and an iconic figure of exceptional contribution to humanity".

"It is altogether fitting that the entire world pays tribute and bids farewell to this iconic leader and the champion of the ideals of justice and liberty," the prime minister told mourners who included celebrities, businessmen and princes.

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"In Ethiopia Madiba has a special place in our hearts since he began the struggle [against apartheid] and stayed for a short moment," he said, using the clan name Mandela was affectionately known by.

"Madiba's life has been a record of all the trials and tribulations the entire continent has had to endure at the hands of ruthless colonisers."

Desalegn's speech was followed by that of Malawian president Joyce Banda, the chairperson of the Southern African Development Community, a regional bloc to which both South Africa and Malawi belong, as well as 13 other countries.

Banda said Mandela was one of Africa's "unique leaders who gallantly fought for peace".

She said she first met Mandela when he visited Malawi after his release from prison and was "amazed by his humility and a great sense of leadership around him".

"In 1996, I was further privileged to visit Robben Island together with a team of Malawians," she said of the island where Mandela spent many years in jail. "After the tour of Robben Island, I was greatly touched by the life and story of Tata [father] Mandela and since then I sought to know and understand this great son of Africa."

'Our hero and father'

From Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, the county’s president, said he had brought "fraternal greetings as well as greetings of solidarity from your brothers and sisters".

“They are saying your grief is our grief; your loss is our loss. Nelson Mandela was our leader, our hero and our father as much as he was yours."

He said Mandela had a long association with Tanzania dating back to the times of struggle for independence and liberation in the two countries.

Kikwete said the governing ANC and its Tanzanian counterpart, Chama Cha Mapinduzi, supported each other in time of need, adding that it was no coincidence that the ANC chose Dar es Salam as the "first port of call in January 1962" when it formed an armed wing.

Mandela did not stay in hotels while visiting Tanzania and he left South Africa secretly. Upon arrival he met Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, said Kikwete.

He said though Nyerere initially had reservations he allowed Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing, to have fighters based in Tanzania.

Mandela was jailed in 1962 and freed in 1990, becoming president in 1994.

Source: Al Jazeera