Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the global icon who guided South Africa from the dark days of apartheid toward a multiracial, democratic nation, passed away Thursday just shy of the 20th anniversary of his inauguration as his nation’s first black president.
The announcement came in a televised address by President Jacob Zuma.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father,” Mr. Zuma said. “Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”
Zuma announced a period of national mourning and asked for South African flags to fly at half mast around the world until Mr. Mandela’s state funeral in the coming weeks. More people are expected to gather at the events to mourn his passing than at any time in his long and celebrated life.
Mandela’s life followed as dramatic a trajectory as that of the nation he came to govern. He started out as a fiery young lawyer who battled South Africa’s dehumanizing color bar first by organizing mass acts of defiance and later through armed resistance.
When he was jailed in 1962, following a tipoff by the US Central Intelligence Agency, he was seen as a terrorist in South Africa and abroad.
But by the time he was released 27 years later, his name had become synonymous around the world with the struggle for justice against tyranny and oppression.
He too had changed, into a more measured, thoughtful, and dignified figure, ready and eager to shoulder the huge burden of transforming his country.
Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994 was attended by an estimated 100,000 people of all races, who formed a sea of supporters extending outward from the emerald lawns of the Union Buildings into Pretoria‘s jacaranda-lined streets.
Among foreign dignitaries from 140 countries were US First Lady Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Cuba leader Fidel Castro, the Duke of Edinburgh, and Palestinian Liberation Organization head Yasser Arafat. Millions more people around the world watched the event on television.
Glasses perched on his nose, eyes narrowed against the African sun, and speaking in his trademark gravelly voice, Mandela told his audience:
“We saw our country tear itself apart in terrible conflict. The time for healing of wounds has come. Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another.”
Pouring into the streets
When Mandela’s passing was announced to the nation late Wednesday night, hundreds of South Africans – many of them in pajamas and too young to remember apartheid or the first democratic vote – poured on to the streets. Black, Indian, and white, they embodied the racial harmony that Mandela strove for.
Karabo Lediga, a media worker originally from a poor township north of Pretoria but now living in Johannesburg, said going to the house seemed the only appropriate response.
“We grew up as youths knowing about him, our mothers taught us about him,” he said. “Because of him we grew up in hope. Now what a state we are all in, even though we knew for so long this was coming.”
Television screens were filled with images of Mandela’s trademark salt and pepper hair, his smile-crinkled eyes and luminous shirts, beaming broadly as he clutched the hands of virtually every world leader and celebrity of his generation.
As the news spread, tributes streamed in from around the world. US President Barack Obamasaid he “gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they are guided by their hopes and not by their fears.”
“Nelson Mandela achieved more than could be expected of any man,” Mr. Obama added. “Today he has gone home and we have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.”
The Baobab tree
The African National Congress, the party to which Mandela devoted his life, said he would remain for them “our nearest and brightest star to guide us on our way,” also describing him as a “Baobab,” the “upside-down,” bushland tree so prevalent in African folklore.
“Our nation has lost a colossus, an epitome of humility, equality, justice, peace, and the hope of millions; here and abroad,” the party said in a statement.
“The large African Boabab, who loved Africa as much as he loved South Africa, has fallen. Its trunk and seeds will nourish the earth for decades to come.”
Cape Town’s former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who like Mandela and South Africa’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk, earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting apartheid, reminded that the personal, private grief of Mandela’s wife, Graca, and his large family should not be forgotten amidst the outpouring of public mourning.
“We pray that God will dry your tears and renew your strength. We thank you for sharing uTata (grandfather) with us,” he said.
He said that Mandela had been “exceptional” but not unique. “The spirit of greatness that he personified resides in all of us,” he said.
“Human beings are made for greatness. Nelson Mandela embodied and reflected our collective greatness. He embodied our hopes and our dreams. He symbolized our enormous potential, potential that has not always been fulfilled.”
Mandela’s death coincided with the London premiere of the long-awaited adaptation of his memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom,” which was attended by his daughter Zindzi and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
Leading with kindness
After Mandela came to power, many white South Africans feared he would turn on them after all of the years of deprivation inflicted on him and his people. But he killed any potential conflict between South Africa’s many race groups with kindness.
One of his first acts as president was to visit 94-year-old Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of apartheid’s architect H.F. Vorwoerd, for tea and koeksister donuts. He invited previously staunch defenders of the repressive policy to join his government, and made a point of talking to Afrikaners in their own language.
In an act of reconciliation celebrated by the Hollywood film Invictus, he declared rugby his new favorite sport, donned a Springbok shirt, and urged his countrymen to rally around the national team in the 1995 World Cup, which they went on to win.
The crowds which will gather this week to bid farewell to Mandela are expected to be larger than at any event during his life.
A memorial service is expected to be attended by tens of thousands of people including foreign heads of state. Many more will travel to the capital’s City Hall where Mandela’s body is expected to lie in state for up to a week.
Among those who will be invited to attend his funeral are Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, Obama, Pope Francis, U2 front man Bono, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and F. W. de Klerk.
Condolence books will be opened in all of South Africa’s diplomatic missions abroad.
As Zuma announced Mandela’s death to the nation, he reminded them of the model the South African leader had set for them all.
“Nelson Mandela brought us together, and it is together that we will bid him farewell,” he said. “Let us express, each in our own way, the deep gratitude we feel for a life spent in service of the people of this country and in the cause of humanity.
“This is indeed the moment of our deepest sorrow,” he noted. “Yet it must also be the moment of our greatest determination – a determination to live as Madiba has lived, to strive as Madiba has strived and to not rest until we have realized his vision of a truly united South Africa, a peaceful and prosperous Africa, and a better world.“