Southern Africa’s political who’s who and other African heads of state gathered in Lusaka for an emotional send off for the late Zambian president Michael Sata.
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, Madagascan President Hery Rajaonarimampianina, Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, as well as outgoing Mozambican president Armando Emilio Guebuza – all in black – joined acting president Guy Scott at the funeral service.
South Africa’s Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, was there to represent President Jacob Zuma.
Apart from Mugabe, this was the first time any sitting president has visited Zambia since 2011, when Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) won the general elections.
The casket carrying Sata’s body was driven for about 10 kilometres by defence forces from the state house to the newly constructed National Heroes Stadium, where the requiem church service was conducted.
A public holiday was declared, enabling thousands of Zambians to line the streets of Lusaka to see off Sata. Those who could get into the 50 000-seater stadium started filing in as early as 6am. Most were dressed in black mourning attire.
When the Catholic Archbishop of Lusaka Telesphore Mphundu began proceedings, many wept openly – but the sombre atmosphere was punctuated with cheers as the crowd celebrated when a family representative read out Sata’s life history.
There was silence and weeping when a eulogy was read on behalf of Sata’s wife Christine, in which she described her late husband as a God-fearing person, and spoke of how he had died in her arms.
“Farewell my president, go well oh my love. Rest in true peace,” her tribute read.
Party divisions set aside
Deepening divisions in the PF were put aside as top members united to give Sata a dignified burial. Last week, Scott sacked the party general secretary, Edgar Lungu, who is seen by many as one of the leading contenders to succeed Sata.
Lungu’s dismissal sparked protests in some parts of the country, forcing Scott to reverse the decision. There were fears that party cadres aligned to Lungu could again protest at the stadium.
Lungu himself attracted wild applause from the crowd as he wept at the end of his address, emphasising the need for the ruling party to carry on with Sata’s vision.
Scott spoke for less than five minutes before the crowd jeered at him, forcing him to round off his address quickly.
Mugabe, a close ally of Sata, also received loud applause as he entered the stadium with his wife Grace. He addressed the funeral in his capacity as the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) chairperson.
“Words fail us as words are too frail to carry the burden of our grief,” Mugabe said.
He said he and Sata regarded each others’ nations as Siamese twins, sharing the Zambezi river as the umbilical cord.
Sata was buried at the Embassy Park, where former presidents Frederick Chiluba and Levy Mwanawasa are also buried.
He is survived by his wife and nine children.