On a public holiday dedicated to reconciliation, South Africans started coming to terms with the loss of Nelson Mandela, unveiling a giant statue to honour his struggle for equality.

A day after the democracy icon was buried with full honours at his boyhood village nearly 1,000 kilometres away, a nine-metre bronze likeness was unveiled in the vast gardens of the Union Buildings, the seat of government in Pretoria.

This is where generations of apartheid heads of state signed many of the racial laws Mandela spent most of his life fighting against, but also where he was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president in 1994.

Last week, up to 100,000 people stood there in hours-long queues to file past Mandela's open casket as he lay in state for three days.


President Jacob Zuma presided over the unveiling of the effigy of a smiling Mandela in mid-stride, arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture, sporting a trademark "Madiba shirt".

Zuma said the open-armed gesture denoted that "South Africa is now a democratic country, he is embracing the entire nation, he is advancing to the nation to say: 'let us come together, let us unite'."

For 50 million compatriots, Mandela was not just a statesman and president, but a moral guide who led their polarised country away from internecine racial conflict.

"Yes, he has a history of struggle, and yes, he used to be a soldier, but now we wanted to create a peaceful figure that embraced the whole nation, the whole South Africa," sculptor Andre Prinsloo, who helped assemble the colossus, told AFP.

The 4.5-tonne statue is the largest of many erected around the world in honour of the anti-apartheid hero.

"When one looks at comrade Madiba's statue out there... it is almost like we are hitting the last nail in the coffin of apartheid,'' Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), told the ceremony - using the clan name by which the statesman was fondly known.

"Now our father is up there saying to the world we have defeated apartheid."

The towering effigy had been planned long before Mandela's death.

Built at a cost of some eight million rand, it replaces a statue of Barry Hertzog, an Afrikaner nationalist who was prime minister of South Africa from 1924 to 1939.

Zuma thanked a representative of the Hertzog family who attended the ceremony for granting permission to move the Afrikaner's statue elsewhere in the gardens.

And he announced the Union Buildings would become a national heritage site, "to write a new and inclusive narrative for our country".

"We are now one nation and... our national symbols need to reflect that unity in diversity," the president said.