Qunu - After nine days of nation-wide mourning, Nelson Mandela's body on Saturday arrived in his boyhood village of Qunu where he will be buried early Sunday with state honours and tribal rites.
The military passed Mandela's flag-draped casket to the ANC who in turn handed it to family elders from the abaThembu clan at the home that served as the former president's rural retreat.
Scores of people had lined the road from nearby Mthatha to Qunu to see his cortege pass through the green countryside, many clutching flowers and flags, some perched in trees for a better view.
Mandela's remains were flown to the Eastern Cape from Pretoria after a final tribute by the ANC at the Waterkloof Airforce Base to the man who symbolised its struggle against apartheid and led it to power in 1994.
President Jacob Zuma saluted Mandela's commitment to a non-racial society, and said his life's work would never be forgotten, before shouting “Amandla” and breaking into song.
“Go well Tata... we will always remember you,” he said.
Zuma's political woes have become plain in the wake of Mandela's death - months before the next general elections - and the ANC is trying to contain the fallout after he was loudly booed before a large cast of world leaders at Tuesday's official memorial in Soweto.
“We need more Madibas so that our country can prosper... Yes, we are free, but the challenge of inequality remains,” he told the audience of key ANC figures at Waterkloof, including former president Thabo Mbeki.
Mbeki, who was ousted by Zuma five years ago, made headlines this week when he suggested the country needed better leadership.
In his eulogy, Zuma pointedly said Mandela's death was not the moment to settle political scores.
“We should not think that Madiba's passing is a time for settling scores... it means you do not understand Madiba and you will never understand him, because he was a man of honesty.”
Mandela's grandson, Mandla, thanked all of those who paid their respects here and at dozens of emotion-laden ceremonies around the country in recent days.
“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.”
He sat beside Mandela's body at the Union Buildings this week as 100,000 people came to view the freedom icon lying in state, and accompanied it on the journey to Qunu in respect of Xhosa culture.
Speaking in the village, AmaHegebe chief Phathekile Holomisa explained that throughout the flight, an elder or senior male family member had to talk to the body and keep it informed of the journey's progress.
The person would address Mandela as if he was still alive, Holomisa explained.
“This is so because his spirit lives,” he said.
Sunday's funeral will gather some 4000 mourners, a small number compared to the tens of thousands who filled most of Soweto's FNB Stadium to hear US President Barack Obama lead tributes to Mandela.
The event became mired in controversy on Saturday when archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu announced that he would not attend because he had not been invited.
“Much as I would have loved to attend the service to say a final farewell to someone I loved and treasured, it would have been disrespectful to Tata to gatecrash what was billed as a private family funeral,” he said in a statement.
Presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj contradicted Tutu, giving assurances that the cleric - who had a long, close association with Mandela, but has lambasted the current government - was on the guest list.
The government communications service said Tutu should have called if he wanted to attend the funeral because no invites were sent out.
However, the archbishop did not call.
Among the dignatories who will attend are Britain's Prince Charles, African Union Commission chairwoman Nkosazana
Dlamini-Zuma, former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, and US civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Iranian vice president Mohammad Shariatmadari, Lesotho's King Letsie III and former French prime ministers Lionel Jospin and Alain Juppe will also attend, but former US president Bill Clinton will not, after initially planning to be there.
Mandela will be laid to rest next to his father Mphakanyiswa Gadla Henry, his mother Noqaphi Nosekeni and his son Magkatho Lewanika Mandela. - Sapa