JOHANNESBURG: Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation awoke on Friday to a future without its 95-year-old founding father, his compatriots joining an upwelling of global mourning and celebration of his astonishing life.
The icon of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle and a colossus of 20th century politics died late Thursday at his home in Johannesburg, surrounded by friends and family.
He had waged a long battle against lung infection.
Outside his home mourners, some in pyjamas, held an all-night vigil, dancing, ululating, chanting and singing the songs of a struggle that Mandela devoted his life to winning.
“I did not come here to mourn. We are celebrating the life of a great man. A great unifier,” said Bobby Damon, who lives just a few streets away.
In Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu led an emotional early morning prayer, expressing a steely determination that Mandela’s vision of a South Africa for all creeds and colors shall not perish with him.
“Ultimately he would want us, South Africans, to be his memorial,” Tutu said, his eyes tightly shut in a prayer brimming over with emotion.
Hours earlier President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela’s death to the nation and the world in a live late night broadcast.
“Our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation, has departed,” he said.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”
Zuma announced that Mandela will receive a full state funeral, which is expected to be attended by dignitaries from around the world, and ordered flags to fly at half-mast.
A special joint session of parliament was called, trading was to be temporarily halted on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and books of commemoration were opened at government buildings.
Meanwhile Mandela’s body was taken to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria, in preparation for a laying in state.
From around the world his death brought foes—Beijing and the Dalai Lama, Palestinians and Israel, Washington and Tehran—together to pay their respects.
Barack Obama led the global roll call of commemoration, with America’s first black president paying tribute to a man who “took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice”.
His death had long been expected, coming after a spate of hospitalizations with lung infections and three months of intensive care at home. But the announcement came as a shock nonetheless.
Mandela’s two youngest daughters were in London watching the premiere of his biopic “Long Walk to Freedom” when they were told of his death.
‘Terrorist’ turned icon
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 towards his former oppressors ensured global appeal for the charismatic leader.
He spent 27 years behind bars before being freed in 1990 to lead the African National Congress (ANC) in negotiations with the white minority rulers, which culminated in the first multi-racial 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 before finally retiring from public life in 2004.
The man he replaced, South Africa’s last white president FW de Klerk, also paid tribute.
“South Africa has lost one of its founding fathers and one of its greatest sons,” he said.
Born in July 1918 in the southeastern Transkei region, Mandela started a career as a lawyer in Johannesburg in parallel with his political activism.
He became commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the then-banned ANC, in 1961, and the following year underwent military training in Algeria and Ethiopia.
While underground back home in South Africa, Mandela was captured by police in 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison.
He was then charged with sabotage and sentenced in 1964 to life in prison at the Rivonia trial, named after a Johannesburg suburb where a number of ANC leaders were arrested.
He used the court hearing to deliver a 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.
“It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He was first sent to prison on Robben Island, where he spent 18 years before being transferred in 1982 to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town and later to Victor Verster prison in nearby Paarl.
When he was finally released on February 11, 1990, he walked out of prison with his fist raised alongside his then-wife Winnie.
Ex-prisoner 46664 took on the task of persuading de Klerk to call time on the era of racist white minority rule.
Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their role in the ending of apartheid.
‘We’d like to be him’
After the ANC won the first multi-racial elections, Mandela went out of his way to assuage the fears of the white minority, declaring his intention to establish “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world”.
Critics said his five-year presidency was marred by corruption and rising levels of crime. But his successors, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, have never enjoyed anywhere near the same levels of respect or affection.
His divorce from second wife Winnie was finalized in 1996.
He found new love in retirement with Graca Machel, the widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel, whom he married on his 80th birthday.
In one of his last foreign policy interventions, he issued a searing rebuke of George W. Bush on the eve of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, calling him “a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust”.
Bush’s predecessor as US president, Bill Clinton, had a higher opinion of Mandela.
“Every time Nelson Mandela walks in a room we all feel a little bigger, we all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day,” he said.
Myanmar’s own democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of her “extreme grief” at the death of her fellow Nobel Peace laureate, who she said had “made us understand that we can change the world”.
Mandela is survived by three daughters, 18 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and three step-grandchildren. He had four step-children through his marriage to Machel.
His death has left his family divided over his wealth. Some of his children and grandchildren are locked in a legal feud with his close friends over alleged irregularities in his two companies. AFP