By Ed Cropley
QUNU, South Africa (Reuters) - The body of Nelson Mandela arrived on Saturday at his ancestral home in the rolling hills of South Africa's Eastern Cape and was greeted by singing, dancing locals ahead of the anti-apartheid leader's state funeral set for the following day.
As the hearse bearing South Africa's first black president appeared on the horizon, crowds by the road broke into "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" (God Bless Africa), the evocative national anthem adopted after the end of apartheid in 1994.
"I'm so excited and at the same time I'm so hurt because I'm seeing him for the last time," said grandmother Victoria Ntsingo, as military helicopters escorting the cortege clattered overhead.
"After his long life and illness he can now rest. Madiba is home. His work is done," she said, referring to Mandela by his clan name.
Mandela, who died on December 5 aged 95, will be buried on Sunday in his family homestead at Qunu, a hamlet of a few hundred houses 700 km (450 miles) south of Johannesburg.
The state funeral will combine military pomp and the traditional rites of his Xhosa abaThembu clan.
It will be the final act in 10 days of mourning for the "Father of the Nation", who suffered 27 years in prison before emerging to preach forgiveness and reconciliation in the quest to build a multi-racial democracy from the ashes of apartheid.
Hours before the funeral, Mandela's friend and fellow anti-apartheid legend retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 82, had initially announced he would not attend, in a row over an invitation that threatened to mar the event.
Tutu, like Mandela a Nobel Peace Prize laureate but also a vocal critic of the current South African government and of the ruling ANC party, had said he did not receive a formal invite or any indication that he was on the guest list.
But after the government clarified that he was on a guest list and was welcome to come, Tutu's spokesman said the archbishop would travel early on Sunday to attend the funeral, averting a potential blot on the event.
"GO WELL, TATA"
Earlier on Saturday, the ANC, the 101-year-old former liberation movement to which Mandela dedicated his life, bid its own farewell in a ceremony at a Pretoria military air base.
With revolutionary songs, clenched fists and cries of "Amandla" (Power) in honor of "Comrade Mandela", it was the most overtly political of all the ceremonies since Mandela's death.
"Go well Tata, you have played your part," President Jacob Zuma said in a eulogy that recalled Mandela's life as a fighter in the armed struggle for freedom as well his later, more widely recognized role as unifier and nation-builder.
"We will always remember you," he said, before leading the packed hall in spirited renditions of anti-apartheid anthems.
After the ANC send-off, Mandela's body was flown by military transport plane, escorted by two fighter jets, to Mthatha, the nearest airport to Qunu. Thousands lined the streets as the hearse proceeded through the town.
Mandela's widow, Graca Machel, and his former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, followed the cortege, looking drained and emotional after nine days of memorials in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
The rites included three days of lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, at which more than 100,000 people queued for hours to say a last goodbye.
One of Mandela's grandchildren, Mandla, thanked those who had come.
"I have witnessed his army. I have witnessed his people. I have witnessed ordinary South Africans who walked this long walk to freedom with him and I can assure the African National Congress today that the future of this country looks bright."
FLAGS AND FLY-PAST
Sunday's funeral will be attended by 4,500 people, from family members and national leaders to foreign guests including Britain's Prince Charles and American civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson.
The Air Force is expected to stage a fly-past, followed by three military helicopters with giant South African flags in tow, an echo of the historic scenes nearly two decades ago when Mandela was sworn in as president.
At a mass memorial in Johannesburg on Tuesday, Zuma was subjected to a barrage of boos and jeers from the crowd, a worrying sign for the ruling party six months before elections.
Although it is widely expected to win, the ANC is losing support even among South Africa's black majority because of its perceived inability to tackle chronic poverty and joblessness.
Africa's biggest economy has enjoyed strong growth since the end of apartheid, but unemployment has remained above 25 percent and it remains one of the world's most unequal societies, with the average white household earning six times more than the average black one.
Besides the booing of Zuma, there has also been a storm of outrage over a sign-language interpreter accused of miming nonsense at the Johannesburg memorial. The signer has defended himself, saying he suffered a schizophrenic attack.
In Qunu too, there were also a few dissenting voices, mainly from those disappointed at being excluded from the funeral of man who to them was a local leader first, and a world leader second.
"Tata Mandela is a man of the people. When he was alive we used to go to his compound. Whatever was going on, we used to go in the compound and it was never a problem for the people of Qunu," said resident Malibonwe Gamakhulu.
"And today he is dead and we are being pushed out."
(Additional reporting by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo, Pascal Fletcher, Ed Stoddard and Siyabonga Sishi; Writing by Ed Cropley and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Alison Williams)