LUSAKA, ZAMBIA, FEB. 27 -- South African black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela received a hero's welcome and the diplomatic treatment normally reserved for a head of state here today as he began his first trip abroad since being released from nearly three decades in prison 16 days ago.

All six leaders of the African countries bordering South Africa plus those from Uganda and Malaysia as well as Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat were on hand to greet the man Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda called "a truly great son of Africa."

"I want you to know that this is a special day, a special moment for all of us," Kaunda told a hushed crowd at Lusaka International Airport.

Tens of thousands of Zambians turned out to get a glimpse of Mandela who is widely heralded throughout Africa as the embodiment of the struggle against South Africa's apartheid system of racial separation. The 15-mile-long route from the airport to the city was lined with crowds in the biggest turnout for any dignitary here in years.

For many young members of the militant anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) living here in exile, it was the first time they had seen the man who launched the armed struggle against white supremacy in South Africa in 1961 by creating the underground military wing of the ANC, the Spear of the Nation.

But for others, like Joe Slovo, head of the South African Communist Party and Alfred Nzo, the ANC's secretary general, it was a meeting of long-separated but hardly forgotten friends and they greeted Mandela with great bear hugs and warm salutations.

Arafat, standing out from the African leaders with his characteristic Palestinian headdress, was among those chosen to greet Mandela as he descended the steps of the aircraft. Mandela had an especially emotional reunion with Herman Toivo ja Toivo, a founder of the Southwest African People's Organization in Namibia, with whom he spent 15 years imprisoned on Robben Island, off Cape Town.

Lusaka has served as headquarters of the long-outlawed ANC since the late 1970s and Mandela is here to meet with its executive committee to discuss what position he will assume and what role he will take in forthcoming talks on a comprehensive political settlement with the white-minority South African government.

Though widely regarded as the ANC's preeminent leader, Mandela holds no formal position in the organization because of his more than 27 years in confinement. The speculation here is that he will be named acting president or given a similar title until the ANC -- which was allowed to resume political activities inside South Africa earlier this month -- holds a national congress in December.

Mandela is also expected to be named head of the delegation that will negotiate with President Frederik W. de Klerk on a new constitutional order for South Africa.

For the first time since his release, Mandela today made an appeal for international assistance to help rebuild the ANC, asking for "capital and other resources." He is scheduled to travel to Zimbabwe Sunday and then on to Tanzania to visit ANC facilities. From there he will go to Stockholm to visit ailing ANC president Oliver Tambo.