Zulu prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a powerful but divisive leader implicated in a wave of deadly violence that marked the birth of modern South Africa, will be laid to rest in a state funeral on Saturday.

Thousands are expected to pay tribute to the once-feared founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), who died a week ago aged 95.

The funeral will take place at a stadium in Ulundi, the ancient capital of the Zulu kingdom, and IFP heartland.

Several hundred people gathered on Friday to accompany Buthelezi's body to the family homestead before the funeral.

Men in traditional Zulu warrior attire chanted and danced, stomping their feet as they waited for hours in the scorching sun.

Carrying shields and spears and dressed in leopard skins, some wore crowns bearing Buthelezi's portrait.

"We have lost such a powerful man; we need to take it all out and mourn, sing for him," said Khaylalihle Buthelezi, 39, a relative who runs a guest house.

"He made us Zulu very proud."

President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has ordered flags to be flown at half mast across the country, will deliver a eulogy at the funeral.

"Buthelezi has been an outstanding leader in the political and cultural life of our nation, including the ebbs and flows of our liberation struggle," Ramaphosa said, announcing the Zulu nationalist's death last Saturday.

Buthelezi was once a foe of Ramaphosa and his late boss Nelson Mandela, as the pair led negotiations to end white rule in South Africa.

For years, he was defined by his bitter rivalry with the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

The party, which has governed since the first post-apartheid elections in 1994, was his political home until he broke away to form the Inkatha movement in 1975.

Born of royal blood, he was to some the embodiment of the Zulu spirit: proud and feisty.

To others, he bordered on a warlord.

- 'Despised' or 'hero' -


As premier of the "independent" homeland of KwaZulu -- a political creation of the apartheid government -- Buthelezi was often regarded as an ally of the racist regime.

He was dogged by allegations of collaborating with the white government to fuel violence and derail the ANC's liberation struggle -- a claim he furiously denied.

Violence between Inkatha supporters and rival liberation groups claimed about 12,000 lives, as unrest between the ANC and IFP escalated in the run-up to the democratic elections in 1994.

Following an 11th-hour turnabout, he was later appointed home affairs minister in the national unity government led by Mandela.

Slender, with distinct rectangular glasses, and a charismatic speaker, Buthelezi went on to become one of the longest-serving lawmakers.

Seen as a statesman by supporters and protector of the culture of more than 11 million Zulus, his legacy, however, remains contested.

Buthelezi's epitaph should read "Chief apartheid collaborator and mass murderer", wrote Mondli Makhanya, editor of the City Press newspaper.

The Sowetan, a daily born out of the liberation struggle, said he would "remain a despised figure in the eyes of those who suffered brutality and violence in the hands of his party henchmen.

"For his supporters, who worshipped the ground he walked on, he is held in high regard as a hero."

The Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi Foundation dismissed criticism of its late patron as "unspeakably evil" and "old lies".

"Nobody is 100-percent innocent in this world but as Zulu people, as black people, we want to appreciate what he has done for us," said Slungi Khumalo, 43, a teacher from Ulundi, outside the morgue.

"He has been our guide."