African animist funeral customs and military pomp for Mandela burial on Sunday

Johannesburg - Nelson Mandela will be laid to rest on Sunday in an elaborate ceremony combining a state funeral and all its military pomp with the traditional burial rituals of his Xhosa clan to ensure he has an easy transition into the afterworld.

Many South Africans will revere Mandela, who during his life became a global symbol of peace and reconciliation, even more now that he has died, since ancestors are widely believed to have a guiding, protective role over the living.

Around 46 percent of the population practises some form of traditional African religions, according to a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a Washington-based research centre. The same report said 87 percent of South Africans self-identify as Christians and only four percent as animists, meaning many combine beliefs and customs of Christianity with their older tribal traditions.

Mandela, of the abaThembu people and South Africa’s first black president, died a week ago at the age of 95. Thousands of people have filed passed his body as it lies in state in Pretoria this week.

He will be buried by his family following their traditional burial rites on Sunday in Qunu, their ancestral home in the rural Eastern Cape province, 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg.

If the rites are not carried out, the abaThembu believe the dead will come back in spirit to demand they are performed.

“We as Africans have rites of passage, whether it is a birth, marriage or funeral. Mandela will be sent off into the spiritual world so that he is welcomed in the world of ancestors. And also so that he doesn’t get angry,” said Nokuzola Mndende, a scholar of African religion.

“His wrath won’t be on the state if these ceremonies don’t take place, it will be on his children,” Mndende said.

A man who for many embodied the Christian values of forgiveness, Mandela was the product of Xhosa traditional upbringing and Methodist schooling.

In his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ Mandela spoke approvingly of the Xhosa rituals which his mother, a convert to the Methodist faith, resisted but his father followed, presiding over slaughter rituals and other traditional rites.


For the abaThembu, the ritual of accompanying Mandela’s spirit will include the slaughtering of an ox in the early hours of Saturday morning before receiving his body, flown in from Pretoria.

The ox meat is then boiled without spices in big, iron black pots in open fires outside.

“On Saturday, once the body has been received, the elders will speak and perform some rituals and then the body will spend the night at the home,” said Chief Mfundo Mtirara, spokesman for the abaThembu royal house.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, before the funeral officially begins, another ox will be slaughtered as part of the family ritual of saying goodbye.

After that Mandela’s body will be handed over to the church and then to President Jacob Zuma for the state funeral.

Finally King Dalindyebo, king of Mandela’s clan, is expected to perform salutations to the dead that will send Mandela to the world of the ancestors.

The king’s men will then join him in a last salutation before everyone returns home to wash their hands outside the family yard and have lunch.

A week later, the family take part in a ritual to “wash the spades” that dug his grave and, after a year has passed, another ox is slaughtered and the mourners remove their black mourning garb.