QUNU, South Africa -- The body of Nelson Mandela arrived Saturday at his ancestral home on South Africa's Eastern Cape, where it was greeted by singing, dancing local residents ahead of the anti-apartheid leader's state funeral set for Sunday.
As police and military helicopters buzzed overheard, the hearse carrying the remains of South Africa's first black president rolled with a police escort into the hamlet of scattered homes lying between green pastures.
Delighted residents danced and sang as the cortege arrived in Qunu, about 450 miles south of Johannesburg, from Mthatha airport.
Among those in the crowd of about 100 people at the entrance of Qunu was 76-year-old Noneka Qezu, who waved a small South African flag and danced and cheered as the convoy passed by.
Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News
Anati Majola, 13, from the village of Qunu, South Africa, poses Saturday with with her 3-year-old sister Anga. Anati said she came out to the street to "celebrate Mandela's day."
"I am here because of Tata Mandela, he is a hero because of all the work he did," she told NBC News. "He did well for the community and for me."
Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years for opposing racist apartheid and emerged in 1990 to forge a new democratic South Africa by promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. He became president in 1994 after South Africa's first all-race democratic elections.
As motorcyclists in uniform and armored personnel carriers escorted the vehicle carrying Mandela's casket to the family compound, people lining the route sang, applauded and, in some cases, wept.
Gugulethu Gxumisa, 19, of Qunu, was on the street, cheering with friends as the convoy passed through the entrance of the village.
"We are here because we wanted to see Mandela using this road for the last time,” she told NBC News. “I am proud that we are here in this village. We grew up here where Mandela grew up."
Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News
Zulu tribesmen dance as a tribute to Nelson Mandela.
The event drew even younger admirers, such as 13-year-old Anati Majola and her 3-year-old sister Anga. Anati Majola said they came out to the street to “celebrate Mandela’s day.”
But at least one good friend couldn’t make it to bid farewell.
Kekana Geledwana, a longtime friend of Mandela, told NBC News’ Richard Engel that he met Mandela after his 1990 release from prison that Mandela helped him many times when he was need, from arranging for his son to receive medical treatment to assisting him through financial hardships.
Geledwana said he would not be able to attend his friend’s funeral because of health reasons.
Ghazi Balkiz / NBC News
Born 3 June 1921, Kekana Geledwana knew Mandela personally. Geledwana said he met Mandela after his release from prison.
Mandela had longed to spend his final months in his beloved rural village but instead he had spent them in a hospital in Pretoria and then in his home in Johannesburg where he had remained in critical condition, suffering from lung problems and other ailments, until his death.
Retired Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu will also travel to Qunu early Sunday to attend Mandela’s funeral, after an apparent misunderstanding was resolved.
Tutu's family had said he would not be attending because he had not received credentials as a clergyman. But the South African government said later in a statement that no invitations were sent to any guests and that Tutu could attend if he so pleased.
“(The) government stands ready and will work through the night to assist any VIP who wishes to attend,” the statement read.
Milly Viljoen, 43, drove 12 hours through the night with a friend to stand on the roadside overlooking Mandela's compound in Qunu.
"It's befitting to see him to his final resting place," she said.
Viljoen, a student activist during apartheid, first saw Mandela when he appeared before an enthralled crowd in Cape Town after he was released in 1990. She met him later when he visited the township school where she was teaching.
"You couldn't help but love the man and be touched and hang onto his every word," she said.
At a solemn ceremony at Waterkloof air base in Pretoria that was broadcast live on South African television, a multi-faith service and a musical tribute to Mandela were held. President Jacob Zuma praised Mandela in a detailed recounting of the struggle against racist white rule. He also described Mandela coming to Johannesburg from the countryside as a young man and bringing discipline and vision to the long and difficult anti-apartheid movement.
Zuma led the group in song after his speech.
Mandela's widow Graca Machel, wearing black, wept and wiped tears from under her glasses. Mandela's former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, looking stricken, was also there as well as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and former South African President Thabo Mbeki. Other members of the extended Mandela family also attended.
Mandela's favorite poem, "Invictus," was printed on the back of the program.
Mandela's casket is expected to arrive at Mthatha Saturday afternoon, greeted by a full military ceremony. Rituals will also be performed before a motorcade takes the casket from Mthatha to Qunu.
The public has been invited to view the cortege as it makes its way to Qunu. The body will be taken to the Mandela homestead, where more rituals will be performed.
A night vigil by the ANC is planned at Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha on Saturday, with party leaders and government officials honoring Mandela on the eve of his burial.
The late president died in his Johannesburg home Dec. 5 at age 95.
His body lay in state for three days this week, drawing huge crowds of South Africans who mourned his death and celebrated his successful struggle against apartheid.
Many were disappointed when they could not view his remains because long lines and traffic problems meant that thousands had to be turned away without paying their final respects.
Ghazi Balkiz, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Simon Moya-Smith and Rohit Kachroo of NBC News, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
Flag-waving mourners await the cortege carrying the coffin of Nelson Mandela between Mthatha and Qunu, South Africa, on Saturday.
First published December 14 2013, 1:04 PM