South Africa’s governing ANC has paid its last respects to Nelson Mandela, the man who led it to power, becoming the country’s first black president after a long and painful struggle against racist, white-minority rule.
The ceremony in Pretoria on Saturday was held hours before Mandela’s remains were due to be returned to his rural childhood home for a traditional burial that will mark the end of a week of remembrance for the Nobel laureate.
The coffin bearing Mandela’s remains was draped with the national flag, with a group of 17 mourners standing surrounding it as President Jacob Zuma gave a key note address.
“Since the day our leader passed on, we have remembered him in a very special way. We have received messages of condolences from around the world,” Zuma said.
He said Mandela, who joined the ANC in his early 20s, was able to “combine theory and practice”, making it easy for him to practise what he preached.
Earlier, Mandela’s grandson, Mandla, gave a speech about the former president’s long struggle for freedom.
Mandela, who was battling a chronic lung infection for months, died last Thursday at the age of 95.
His burial will take place on Sunday in Qunu, the little village in the East Cape province where Mandela was born and grew up.
“Saturday 14 December, 2013 marks the beginning of our father’s final long walk back to Qunu, his resting place,” said family spokesman Temba Matanzima.
Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from East Cape, said many people in the province viewed Mandela, who rose from a humble background to lead Africa’s richest nation, as a “source is inspiration”.
On Sunday, some 5,000 people, including foreign dignitaries, are expected to participate in a formal, two-hour ceremony beginning at 8am (0600 GMT).
The funeral procession from the airport to Qunu will be led by the armed forces and Mandela will receive a 21-gun salute and a flyover by the South African Air Force.
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 man they viewed as a liberator.
Tens of thousands packed a soaked stadium in Soweto for a memorial service on Tuesday, which was attended by more than 70 world leaders.
Up to 100,000 people filed past Mandela’s open-casket for the three days it was displayed at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the seat of government where he was inaugurated two decades earlier.
Hundreds of people pushed through a police cordon on Friday in a last-gasp bid to see his body before his coffin was closed.
Outside the perimeter, there was crushing disappointment for tens of thousands of mourners unable to pay their final respects to the man whose journey from prisoner to president transformed South Africa and inspired the world.
“We really thought this was the day. But again we did not get to see the old man,” said Lydia More, 31, who got in line at 7am.
“We just feel empty. It’s so sad,” she said.
Mandela was jailed for 27 years on Robben Island by the white-minority racist regime which he opposed, emerging from prison in 1990 and becoming president after the country’s first multi-racial elections in 1994.
A year before he was elected president, he won the Nobel Peace Prize along with FW de Clerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era president who helped negotiate the end of racial segregation with Mandela.
The burial in Qunu will be a strictly private affair, barred to both the public and the media, government spokeswoman Phumla Williams told the AFP news agency.
“The family has indicated they want to make the burial a family matter. They don’t want it to be televised. They don’t want people to see when the body is taken down,” she said.
Around 3,000 members of the media have already descended on Qunu where a special stage and marquee have been erected for the invited guests, who include Britain’s Prince Charles.
The funeral will be held according to traditional Xhosa rites overseen by male members of Mandela’s clan.
The slaughtering of an animal – a ritual performed through various milestones of a person’s life – will form a crucial part of the event.
During the ceremony, Mandela will be referred to as Dalibhunga, the name given to him at the age of 16 as he entered adulthood.
Although Mandela never publicly declared his religious denomination, his family comes from a Methodist background.