JOHANNESBURG, JUNE 10 -- Miriam Makeba, the exiled South African singer who won international acclaim for her anti-apartheid songs, returned home today for the first time in 31 years for a visit to family, friends and her past.

"I always wanted to come home. This is my home," she told a crowd of admirers and journalists as she arrived at the international airport here. "My umbilical cord is buried in this soil."

Makeba, 58, left here in 1959. She gained fame abroad for songs that combined traditional African rhythms and harsh criticism of apartheid South Africa. One of her most popular songs called for the release of African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, who was freed Feb. 11 after nearly 28 years in jail.

She was known across Africa as "Mama Africa" and became in the eyes of the entertainment world probably the preeminent singer of the anti-apartheid cause.

Her South African passport was revoked in 1960, and she lived in the United States until 1968, when she married American black activist Stokely Carmichael and moved to Conakry, Guinea. The couple split up after 10 years of marriage. Makeba at one point became Guinea's special ambassador to the United Nations. In 1976 she made a speech there denouncing the apartheid system here, after which the South African state-run radio banned her songs from the radio.

She told reporters upon arriving back home today that she never understood why she had been exiled in the first place. "I never committed any crime. I never killed anybody," she said.

Her main reason for coming home now, she said, was "everybody is coming home, why shouldn't I?"

Since President F.W. de Klerk began his reforms, including the unbanning of all anti-apartheid groups, in early February, many exiles have been returning, either for visits or to stay permanently.

Makeba said she planned to remain here only a week or two to visit her family and friends, and particularly the grave of her mother, whose funeral she was not allowed to attend in 1960.

She is staying at the home of her brother in the sprawling black township of Soweto, where she grew up.

Makeba said she was "very happy" to be home again but said she'd be even happier "when I can come back to sing before my people, where I'll not have to explain my songs because they will understand."

The only singing she did today was at the airport, where she joined friends and relatives in an emotional singing of "Nkosi Sikelel i'Africa" (God Bless Africa), the song that is likely to become South Africa's national anthem when apartheid crumbles here.