QUNU, South Africa (AP) — The rural home where Nelson Mandela grew up in the 1920s had mud walls, a grass thatched roof, and a floor polished smooth with cow dung. When throngs flood Mandela’s hometown on Sunday for his burial, they will visit a simple place steeped in old ways but which now has become the center of a massive state operation to honor the anti-apartheid leader.
Construction workers were scrambling to finish preparations for the mourners. On Mandela’s sprawling property, workers were erecting a temporary seating structure. Road crews hurried to finish paving a new highway in front of Mandela’s home that runs from Qunu, the hometown, to Mthatha, the city with the nearest airport in Eastern Cape province.
Military helicopters flew around the area on Friday, and security forces patrolled roads. Some units practiced drills ahead of a ceremony to welcome Mandela’s casket on Saturday after it is transferred from Pretoria, the capital. President Jacob Zuma has authorized the deployment of 11,900 military servicemen to assist police in maintaining order during the funeral service.
Armored military vehicles ring Mandela’s fence-lined property. A yellow earth mover smoothed a dirt road behind Mandela’s house, near where two dozen cows graze.
Most of Qunu lags the modern world by a few decades. Many houses, painted green, pink and yellow, are one-room structures with tin or straw roofs. Many have outhouses.
Mandela first began to shepherd animals and use a slingshot, around the age of 5, in Qunu. Today, sheep, goats and cows leisurely cross a two-lane highway and smaller dirt roads.
The several hundred residents considered Mandela a neighbor, foremost. On a recent day, Malwande Mazwi strolled with stilted, uneven steps past the fence of Mandela’s modern compound. The 24-year-old leaned heavily on two sticks, crutches he’s used since he first contracted polio as a child.
Mazwi illustrates how in Qunu, education and health standards lag. Mazwi lives only 100 yards (meters) behind Mandela’s back fence line in structures with thatch and tin roofs. His mother, Nothobile Gamakhulu, hopes one day to afford an operation to straighten his legs. First, though, she would like to buy modern crutches to replace Mazwi’s simple sticks.
Joshua Mzingelwa is the leader of Morians Episcopal Apostolic Church, right next to Mazwi’s house. Dressed in a regal blue robe, Mzingelwa delivered a loud, throaty sermon last week.
“There is still hope in the hardship that you are facing daily,” even with the loss of Mandela, he told the congregation.
Mzingelwa said Qunu needs better health and education services. “It’s not what we would like things to be,” he said, noting that Qunu has only a small, one-room health clinic. But he does not think Qunu, just because it is Mandela’s home, deserves more attention than other towns.
As a boy, Mandela watched his father die of lung cancer on the floor of the family hut without even a visit to a doctor.