The body of Archbishop Desmond Tutu was carried this morning into a historic cathedral where he once railed against white rule, to allow South Africans to bid farewell before the weekend funeral.

One small bouquet was placed on top of a simple pine coffin carried by six Anglican priests, AFP journalists reported.

The tireless anti-apartheid icon, who died peacefully aged 90 on 26 December, will be cremated and his ashes buried on New Year's Day.

Tutu will lie in state at the Anglican Church's St George's Cathedral in Cape Town throughout today and tomorrow to allow as many people as possible to say their final goodbyes to the much loved clergy and rights advocate.

His lying in state had been extended to two days "for fear there might be a stampede," Reverend Gilmore Fry told AFP outside the church waiting for the body to arrive.

Following a private cremation, Tutu's ashes will be interred inside his stonewalled former parish - where he preached for many years - and where bells have been ringing in his memory for 10 minutes at midday every day since Monday.

Hundreds of people have flocked to the cathedral since Sunday - where Tutu served as the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town for a decade until 1996 - to lay flowers and sign a book of condolences.

"We've come to pay our respects," said Joan Coulson, 70, who with her sister had turned up early in the morning to be the first to enter the church to see the coffin.

She first met Tutu, her "rock star", at the age of 15. "I would compare him with Elvis," referring to the American rock and roll star.

Joking that the outspoken priest will be rabble-rousing even in heaven, Coulson added: "St Peter will say 'take it easy' no ructions!'"

The country's multi-coloured national flag is flying at half-mast across South Africa. Several ceremonies are taking place across the country every day until the funeral.

It will be a simple funeral in line with his wishes.

"He wanted no ostentatiousness or lavish spending," said his foundation, adding he even "asked that the coffin be the cheapest available".

Only a bouquet of carnations from his family will be on display in the cathedral on the funeral day.

In line with Covid-19 restrictions, only 100 mourners will attend the funeral.

Tutu had also wanted military rites to be limited.

Only the South African flag will be presented to his wife Leah, with whom he was married in 1955 and had four children.

Weakened by advanced age and prostate cancer, the Nobel Peace laureate had retired from public life in recent years.

He retired in 1996 to lead a harrowing journey into South Africa's dark past as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of apartheid in terrible detail.