JOHANNESBURG – The world united Friday to mourn Nelson Mandela, the iconic South African anti-apartheid hero, as the country marked his passing with flowers, songs and dance.
President Jacob Zuma announced a 10-day mourning period for Mandela, the founding father of modern South Africa and its first black leader, after he died Thursday night at age 95, surrounded by friends and family.
Barack Obama, the first U.S. black president, will travel to South Africa this week, the White House said, joining a raft of world leaders for a huge memorial service Tuesday. Mandela’s body will lie in state in Pretoria for three days after the service and he will receive a state burial next Sunday in his boyhood home of Qunu.
Ordinary South Africans across the country poured out onto the streets in a riot of color, dance and song to celebrate the life of their beloved former leader, who is known affectionately as Madiba.
In Cape Town, a crowd of thousands from all races and ages gathered for a multifaith celebration at the site where Mandela made his first public speech after nearly three decades in jail during apartheid. With two giant panels of his picture hanging from City Hall, the sound of hymns, songs and prayers filled the air, as did a round of chants with raised clenched fists that evoked Mandela’s struggle for freedom.
“Tonight we stand in solidarity as the people of Cape Town — black, white, colored, Indian, all the religions together,” said Mayor Patricia De Lille.
And as his compatriots paid lively and emotional tributes to the revered former statesman, admirers from all walks of life around the world lauded Mandela’s legacy and remembered key moments in the great man’s life.
South Africa’s archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, a fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, praised Mandela as an “incredible gift that God gave us.” Fighting back tears, Tutu said his old friend was “a unifier from the moment he walked out of prison.”
Mandela spent 27 years in prison before becoming president and unifying his country with a message of reconciliation after the end of apartheid white minority rule. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with South Africa’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk, in 1993.
Palestinians and Israelis, Chinese and the Dalai Lama, Americans and Iranians all paid heartfelt tribute to Mandela, describing him as one of the towering figures of the 20th century who inspired young and old with his fight for equality.
Obama led the global roll call of commemorations. “We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” the U.S. leader said. “He achieved more than could be expected of any man.”
Flags flew at half-mast in numerous countries, including the United States, France and Britain, and at the United Nations headquarters in New York. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was lit up in green, red, yellow and blue to symbolize the South African flag, while India declared five days of mourning for a man its premier labelled “a true Gandhian.”
And a Paris summit of some 40 African leaders was overshadowed by Mandela’s death. An old associate, African Union Commission President Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, said Mandela “was a son who became larger than the continent.”
South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said the best way to remember Mandela was to free the African continent of poverty, unrest and disease.
“We will do it in your name,” she said.
In Brazil, organizers of the 2014 football World Cup flashed Mandela’s image up on a giant screen and held a minute’s silence before the groups’ draw. Even Syria’s beleaguered president, Bashar Assad, ventured an homage on his official Facebook page, calling Mandela “a torch for the resistance and liberation from racism, hatred, occupation and injustice” as well as “an inspiration for all the downtrodden people of the world.”
While the ailing Mandela’s death had long been expected after a spate of hospitalizations, the announcement came as a burst of searing sadness nonetheless. Mandela had waged a long battle against a recurring lung infection and had been receiving treatment at home since September, following a lengthy hospital stay.
Mandela’s two youngest daughters were in London watching the premiere of his biopic “Long Walk to Freedom,” along with Prince William, when they learned of his death. British actor Idris Elba, who portrays Mandela in the film, said: “We have lost one of the greatest human beings to have walked this Earth.”
Mandela’s eldest grandson, Mandla, expressed gratitude for the international outpouring of support, saying the messages had “heartened and overwhelmed” the family.
Outside Mandela’s home in the upmarket Houghton suburb of Johannesburg and at his former residence in the once blacks-only township of Soweto, scores of well-wishers danced and sang old songs of struggle to celebrate the man they lovingly call Madiba. His memorial service Tuesday will take place in Soweto stadium, which can hold over 90,000 people.
Once considered a terrorist by the United States and Britain for his support of violence against the apartheid regime, at the time of his death he was an almost unimpeachable moral icon.
Mandela’s extraordinary life story, quirky sense of humor and lack of bitterness toward his former oppressors ensured global appeal. He spent 27 years behind bars before being freed in 1990 to lead the African National Congress in negotiations with the white minority rulers, which culminated in the country’s first multiracial elections in 1994.
A victorious Mandela served a single term as president before taking up a new role as a roving elder statesman and leading AIDS campaigner. He retired from public life in 2004.
Born in 1918, Mandela started a career as a lawyer in Johannesburg in parallel with his political activism. He became commander of the armed wing of the then-banned ANC and underwent military training in Algeria and Ethiopia in the early 1960s.
He was arrested and sentenced to life in jail for sabotage in 1964. At his trial, he delivered the speech that was to become the manifesto of the anti-apartheid movement.
“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society,” he said from the dock. “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He served most of his sentence on Robben Island, where he was held in Spartan conditions. When he was finally released on Feb. 11, 1990, he walked out of prison with his fist raised alongside his then-wife, Winnie.