Declaring the "great day has arrived," Jean-Bertrand Aristide said farewell to South Africa Thursday, then boarded a plane for Haiti, where he can expect both adoring crowds and probing questions about his intentions.
U.S. President Barack Obama had tried to keep the hugely popular but controversial figure away from his country until it holds a presidential election this weekend, a vote many fear will be destabilized by the presence of the former Haitian president.
Aristide's lawyer Ira Kurzban has said Aristide will be back in Haiti by noon on Friday.
Aristide addressed about 50 reporters in several languages from South Africa and elsewhere on the continent at a small airport in northern Johannesburg that often handles charter flights. South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane accompanied him, his wife Mildred and two daughters to the airport to see them off. Michaela, 12, and Christine, 14, have spent half their lives and their most formative years in exile.
"The great day has arrived! The day to say goodbye before returning home," he said in Zulu, a language he studied in South Africa. "We are delighted to return home after seven years. In Haiti also they are very happy .... Their dream will be fulfilled. Together, we will continue to share this endless love."
Thousands are expected to welcome him home. As word spread in Haiti of his imminent return, several dozen people adorned the courtyard of his foundation with small Haitian flags and photos of him. One woman showed up with a bouquet of flowers that she wanted to present to him, while another knelt on the concrete in prayer. A third elderly woman simply wept.
Aristide took no questions before heading to his chartered plane.
"We can't hold him hostage if he wants to go," South African Cabinet Minister Collins Chabane was quoted as saying earlier Thursday, noting Haiti's government had delivered Aristide's diplomatic passport last month.
Aristide, a former slum priest, was twice elected president of Haiti and remains wildly popular among the Caribbean nation's majority poor.
Aristide never completed either of his terms. He was ousted the first time in a coup and restored to power in a U.S. military intervention in 1994. After completing his term he was re-elected years later, only to flee a rebellion in 2004 aboard a U.S. plane. Aristide claimed he was kidnapped.
Aristide has been reclusive in exile, doing university research and polishing his academic credentials with a doctorate awarded by the University of South Africa for a comparative study on Zulu and Haitian Creole. He relaxed by playing table tennis.
Obama was concerned enough about Aristide's possibly destabilizing influence to call South African President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday and discuss the matter, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Associated Press. A Zuma spokesman had no comment, saying he was unaware of the call.
"The United States, along with others in the international community, has deep concerns that President Aristide's return to Haiti in the closing days of the election could be destabilizing," Vietor said. "President Obama reiterated ... his belief that the Haitian people deserve the chance to choose their government through peaceful, free, and fair elections March 20."
At the airport Thursday, South Africa's foreign minister said Zuma had wished Aristide "bon voyage and safe landing in his country of birth."
Aides say Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, fears the winner of Sunday's vote might block his return. In the past, both candidates had opposed Aristide. Now, both Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat stress his right to return as a Haitian citizen under the constitution. Both candidates would want to attract votes from followers of the Lavalas Family party of which Aristide still is president.
Haiti's electoral council barred Lavalas from the presidential election for technical reasons that supporters said were bogus. Its members are boycotting Sunday's runoff. The initial Nov. 28 vote was so troubled by fraud, disorganization, instances of violence and voter intimidation that 12 of the 19 candidates including the front-runners initially called for it to be tossed out.
Actor Danny Glover, the chair of TransAfrica social justice forum, came to South Africa to accompany Aristide home. Glover asked why former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier could return to Haiti unhindered and not Aristide.
"People of good conscience cannot be idle while a former dictator is able to return unhindered while a democratic leader who peacefully handed over power to another elected president is restricted from returning to his country by external forces," Glover wrote on the TransAfrica Forum website.
Bill Quigley, legal Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights at Loyola New Orleans Law School said that "the United States trying to control when any Haitian citizen _ especially a former President _ can enter Haiti is outrageous." Quigley is among more than more than 100 lawyers from the United States, Europe and Canada who wrote a letter of criticism to the U.S. State Department.
South African officials had been showing increasingly impatience with the U.S.
Chabane told a news conference Thursday that South Africa cannot be held responsible for whether Aristide stays or goes, according to the South African Press Association.
"What I should stress is that we are not sending former President Aristide to Haiti. He was given the passport by the government of Haiti and we can't hold him hostage if he wants to go," Chabane was quoted as saying.
Aristide emerged as a leading voice for Haiti's poor in a popular revolt that forced an end to the Duvalier family's 29-year dictatorship. He has said he will not be involved in politics in Haiti and wants to lead his foundation's efforts to improve education in the impoverished Caribbean nation devastated by last year's catastrophic earthquake.
In the Haitian capital's Bel-Air neighborhood Thursday, there was a celebratory air as word spread Aristide was coming.
"We are going to party," said 36-year-old mechanic Assey Woy, passing the afternoon on street corner with friends. "It will be like New Year's Day."
Not far away, in front of the crumbled National Palace, a man who is supporting Martelly in Sunday's election told Associated Press Television that he had mixed feelings about the arrival.
"Yes, I support Aristide. I love Aristide," said the man who gave only his first name, Carlos. "But I don't want him to come back right now because it can be trouble for the election."
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Jenny Gross and Ed Brown in Johannesburg contributed to this report.