In Qunu, the village 350 miles to the south where he lived as a child and where he will be buried Sunday, however, the mood remained somber. Here, where rituals run deep and custom is sacrosanct, people were mourning the death of a beloved clan chief.
“A great tree has fallen to the ground, and there is not yet another one growing to take its place,” says Shakes Dingani, who lives with his family across a shallow valley a half-mile from Mr. Mandela’s home here.
“This is not a time for a party. It is a time for us to remember this man who did so much for us, and to mourn that his time is over.”
The quiet reflection taking place in this village of simple single-story huts painted pastel pink and green, strung along a line of treeless hills, is increasingly being disturbed by the preparations for the great man’s funeral.
In the meadow behind Mandela’s house here – large and double-story, but still pastel pink – the skeleton of a huge marquee went up Monday. Roads are being cordoned off. Up on the rise where he will be buried, soldiers stood watch.
Thousands of ordinary South Africans and hundreds of invited dignitaries will gather here over the weekend to witness Mandela’s burial on a low hill dotted with the Cape Aloe plants that stand above his home.
This is where Mandela felt most at home, away from the relentless attention that his political position brought and among people whose families had been neighbors for generations.
As a boy, the entirety of his world was these hills, the clear streams in their valleys and the land bounded by the distance he could shepherd his livestock between sunrise and sunset.
Living with his mother in three thatched huts, he spent his days with his family’s sheep and calves, gathering wild honey, drinking warm milk straight from the udder, and stick-fighting with friends.
Dirt paths connected the village to its neighbors, but a visit the closest town was beyond his imagination.
Those memories sustained him during the long years in prison. He once wrote that his time here as a child gave him his “love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon,” all things denied to him on Robben Island.
It was to here that he returned after his release, and where in retirement he spent increasing amounts of time, hiking the hills and valleys and exasperating his security detail by stopping, it seems, to speak to everyone.
“He passed here many times, he stopped to say hello, to play games with the children,” says Eunice Ndombakaye, a thick-set grandmother in a woolen hat, whose home overlooks Mandela’s.
“To us he is family, he is one of our chiefs. We will miss him very much, but we are happy because he is with the ancestors.”
Interfering with custom
The ancestors are rarely far from people’s minds here. There are deep worries that the logistics and diplomatic protocols of arranging this global statesman’s funeral are interfering with the rituals demanded by the customs of his Thembu people, part of the Xhosa tribe.
“Things are not going right,” says one relative of Mr Mandela’s in Qunu who did not want to give his name for fear of crossing senior family members.
“His body is being moved around too much. The elders must be there, they must talk to the spirit of the deceased, tell him where the body is going, so that the spirit comes too. Is that happening? It can anger the ancestors if it is not.”
It was always going to be complicated to satisfy everyone’s expectations of how best to bury Mandela, and most in South Africa seem happy with preparations so far.
A memorial service to be attended by 70 heads of state and as many as 90,000 people will be held Tuesday morning at a Johannesburg sports stadium, before Mandela’s body lies in state for three days in the capital, Pretoria.
After all that, on Sunday, he will finally be brought home to his final resting place, forever overlooking those open spaces and the clear line of that horizon.