Nelson Mandela's body has arrived in his family`s village of Qunu in South Africa's Eastern Cape region, ahead of a state funeral on Sunday.

The last leg of the journey home began Saturday at the Waterkloof airforce base in the capital of Pretoria with a send-off for the anti-apartheid hero by the ruling African National Congress.

With revolutionary songs, some raised fists and tributes to "Comrade Mandela," members of the former liberation movement to which Mandela had dedicated his life said farewell.

"Go well 'Tata', you have played your part," South African President and ANC leader Jacob Zuma said in a eulogy using the Xhosa word for "father". He recalled Mandela's life as a freedom fighter in the armed struggle against white minority rule, for which he was put in jail for 27 years.

"We will always remember you," Zuma said, before bellowing the ANC struggle slogan of "Amandla" (Power).

Mandela's casket then arrived at Mthatha Airport, received with full military honors, before heading to the village of Qunu, about 30 kilometres away.

CBC's Susan Ormiston, reporting from Johannesburg, says 5,000 people have come to the village to witness the burial ceremony.

"We'll see traditional rituals. His body will be wrapped in a cloth, probably a leopard skin, because he is the son of a leader," Ormiston said.

"Also, the elders will be speaking to his spirit throughout today and tonight. They have had to stay by his body. And there will be the Christian rituals of burial and the state ceremony."

Nomakhosazana Meth, the mayor of Qunu district, told CBC News the community expects 25,000 visitors on the day of the funeral. Meth said residents are "very grateful" Mandela chose to be buried in his home village.

"We are very proud an grateful for that because, at least, we know now his heart is here," she said.

Meth said she wants to encourage the local council to create a special place, a kind of memorial, in the village where people can always go to to "celebrate him."

The ANC send-off at the airforce base — attended by Mandela's widow Graca Machel and his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — came after nine days of intense and emotion-charged mourning and memorial activities held in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

This included three days of lying in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria from Wednesday to Friday in which more than 100,000 people queued for hours to say a last personal goodbye to the nation's first black president.

One of Mandela's grandchildren, Mandla, thanked those who had come to pay their respects to the Nobel peace laureate.

"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."

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Nelson Mandela, who was jailed for 27 years during white rule and later became South Africa's first black president, died Dec. 5 in his Johannesburg home after a long illness at the age of 95.

Escorted by fighter jets, Mandela's body was flown by South Africa's airforce to his Eastern Cape home region, where it began the journey to his family home in Qunu, a village among rolling green hills, 700 kilometres south of Johannesburg.

There, a state funeral will take place on Sunday combining military pomp and traditional rites of Mandela's Xhosa abaThembu clan. It will be attended by family members, national leaders and foreign guests including Prince Charles and U.S. civil rights activist Reverend Jessie Jackson.

Desmond Tutu now planning to attend

Meanwhile retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he will now  attend the service after claiming that he hadn't been invited by the South African government.

Tutu, a longtime friend of Nelson Mandela and occasional critic of the current South African government, had said he cancelled his plans to fly to the Eastern Cape to attend the funeral after receiving no indication that his name was on the guest list.

However, Mac Maharaj, a spokesman for the South African presidency, says Tutu is on the guest list and that he hopes a solution will be found that allows Tutu to attend.

Late Saturday, Tutu's spokesman, Roger Friedman said Tutu will take a flight early Sunday morning in order to attend Mandela's funeral service in Qunu. He did not say what brought about the change in plans.

In Saturday's ANC homage, the most overtly political event of the mourning period since Mandela died on Dec. 5 aged 95, leaders of the ruling party and allied trade unions hailed Mandela as a determined "soldier" and revolutionary.

They spoke before Mandela's coffin, draped in the green and yellow ANC flag in an airport hangar prepared for the event.

The ANC event was in deep contrast to Tuesday's mass public memorial in Johannesburg where Zuma, who has ruled since 2009, was subjected to a humiliating barrage of boos and jeers, a worrying sign for the ruling party six months before elections.

`We need more Madibas`

There was no such dissonant note on Saturday, with speaker after speaker hailing the lifelong link between the former president and the ANC which will be one of the party's strongest campaigning pillars for the coming elections.

Representatives from left-wing parties, such as Angola's MPLA, and Ireland's Sinn Fein, attended Saturday's homage.

Zuma, who is widely criticized for being weak and ineffective, addressed the leadership issue in his speech.

"The question is, can we produce as ANC other 'Madibas'?" he asked, using Mandela's Xhosa clan name.

'We need more Madibas so that our country can prosper. Yes we are free, but the challenges of inequality remain.'- South African President Jacob Zuma

"We need more Madibas so that our country can prosper. Yes we are free, but the challenges of inequality remain."

It is precisely his government's perceived failure to tackle this inequality, manifested in still widespread poverty and chronic joblessness, which has fed dissatisfaction with Zuma and the ANC that will erode their support in the coming vote. But the party that has governed since the end of apartheid in 1994 is expected to comfortably win the elections.

Sunday's funeral at Qunu, planned as more intimate than the mass memorial held on Tuesday attended by a host of world leaders, will bring together members of Mandela's family and Xhosa abaThembu clan and a smaller group of dignitaries.

These include African and Caribbean leaders, Iranian Vice President Mohammad Shariatmadari, Lesotho's King Letsie III and former French Prime Ministers Lionel Jospin and Alain Juppe.

Mandela's casket will be taken in military procession from Mthatha in the Eastern Cape about 45 kilometres to Qunu, allowing locals a chance to say goodbye to their most famous son.

The week of mourning since Mandela's death has not been without controversy.

Besides the booing of Zuma, there has also been a storm of outrage over a sign-language interpreter accused of miming nonsense at the same memorial. The signer has defended himself, saying he suffered a schizophrenic episode.

With files from CBC News