Nelson Mandela, who guided South Africa from the shackles of apartheid to multi-racial democracy and became an international icon of peace and reconciliation, died Thursday at age 95.
Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against white minority rule, Mandela emerged determined to use his prestige and charisma to bring down apartheid while avoiding a civil war.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come,” Mandela said in his acceptance speech on becoming South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation.”
President Barack Obama hailed Mandela as a leader who left his country with a legacy of freedom and peace with the world.
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man,” Obama said at the White House shortly after the announcement of Mandela’s death.
“Today he’s gone home, and we’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth,” Obama said.
President Jacob Zuma’s announcement of the death late on Thursday shook South Africa. The streets of the capital Pretoria and of Johannesburg were hushed, and in bars and nightclubs, music was turned off as people gathered to quietly talk about the news.
A sombre Zuma told the nation in a televised address that Mandela “passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20h50 on the 5th of December 2013”.
“He is now resting. He is now at peace,” Zuma said.
Tributes began flooding in almost immediately for a man who was a global symbol of struggle against injustice and of racial reconciliation.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron called Mandela “a hero of our time”. “A great light has gone out in the world,” he said.
Praise also came from African leaders. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said the death “will create a huge vacuum that will be difficult to fill in our continent.”
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said Mandela was “one of the most honorable figures of our time … a man of vision, a freedom fighter who rejected violence.”
“Today a great freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela has died, one of the world’s most important symbols of freedom,” said Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior official of the Palestinian Islamist Hamas group, calling Mandela “one of the biggest supporters of our cause.”
In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro declared three days of national mourning.
“Nine months since the passing of our comandante (Hugo Chavez), another giant of the people of the world passed away today. Madiba you will live forever!” Maduro said on Twitter.
Ordinary South Africans were in shock. “It feels like it’s my father who has died. He was such a good man, who had good values the nation could look up to. He was a role model unlike our leaders of today,” said Annah Khokhozela, 37, a nanny, speaking in Johannesburg.
Mourners gathered outside Mandela’s home and spontaneous tributes sprang up around the world.
The famed Apollo Theater in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, which Mandela visited in 1990, lit its marquee with the words: “In memory of Nelson Mandela … He changed our world.”
In Washington, flowers and candles were set at the base of a statue of Mandela outside the South African Embassy.
Outside Mandela’s old house in Vilakazi Street, Soweto, a crowd of people, some with South African flags draped around them, gathered to sing songs in praise of the revered statesman. “Mandela you brought us peace” was one of the songs.
“I have mixed feelings. I am happy that he is resting, but I am also sad to see him go,” said Molebogeng Ntheledi, 45, reflecting the mix of reverence and resignation with which South Africans had been following Mandela’s fight against illness.
National figures were quick to play down fears expressed by a minority that the passing of the great conciliator might lead again to a return of the racial and political tensions that racked South Africa during the apartheid era.
The loss of its most beloved leader comes at a time when the nation has been experiencing bloody labor unrest, growing protests against poor services, poverty, crime and unemployment and corruption scandals tainting Zuma’s rule.
Many saw today’s South Africa – the African continent’s biggest economy but also one of the world’s most unequal – still distant from being the “Rainbow Nation” ideal of social peace and shared prosperity that Mandela had proclaimed on his triumphant release from prison in 1990.
“To suggest that South Africa might go up in flames – as some have predicted – is to discredit South Africans and Madiba’s legacy,” another veteran anti-apartheid leader, former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, said. “Madiba” is Mandela’s clan name.
“The sun will rise tomorrow, and the next day and the next … It may not appear as bright as yesterday, but life will carry on,” Tutu said in a statement of tribute.