Nelson Mandela, the icon of the anti-apartheid movement and South Africa's first black president, was marking his 90th birthday on Friday as tributes poured in from around the world.
Mandela, whose stint as head of state between 1994-99 came after three decades behind bars, was to enjoy a private party with his family at his rural homestead in the Eastern Cape before a glittering bash on Saturday.
Friday also marks 10 years since Mandela's wedding to his third wife Graca Machel who has been at the head of a long queue wanting to sing his praises.
"He is simply a wonderful husband ... and we enjoy every single day as if it is the last day," Machel, the widow of the former Mozambican president Samora Machel, said.
"When we married we didn't know we'd be given 10 years together. We have been very lucky."
One of Mandela's grand-daughters, Ndileka Mandela, said the family was planning "a surprise" for him in Qunu.
"We don't want to give too much away as it would be like knowing what's in a present before opening it," she said.
"For him it is a special day, but for all of us too." Celebrations of Mandela's birthday have been ongoing for several weeks, including a massive concert last month in Hyde Park, London, to raise funds for his AIDS charity while limited edition coins and stamps bearing his image have been launched to also generate money for his charitable foundation.
The current South African President Thabo Mbeki and the new leader of Mandela's beloved African National Congress (ANC) Jacob Zuma are among a group of some 500 guests due to attend Saturday's get-together in Qunu.
But events are also taking place up and down the country, including a boxing tournament in honour of the former amateur pugilist, and a concert in Johannesburg's landmark Mandela Square.
Ahead of his birthday, hundreds of thousands of well-wishers have been paying their respects on special websites, in newspaper notices and on radio stations.
F.W. de Klerk, the last president of the apartheid era South Africa, described Mandela -- who spent 27 years in prison for trying to overthrow the whites-only regime -- as one of the greatest figures of the 20th century.
"After his inauguration, Nelson Mandela used his personal charm to promote reconciliation and to mould our widely diverse communities into an emerging multicultural nation. This, I believe, will be seen as his greatest legacy."
Sepp Blatter, president of football's world governing body FIFA, described him as the "epitome of grace and dignity, a man with determination to overcome even the greatest odds", as he recalled the key role played by Mandela in bringing the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.
Mandela retired from public life four years ago but has continued to be involved with his charity foundation, raising millions of dollars for AIDS charities and to help underprivileged children.