South Africans flocked to the Johannesburg home of Nelson Mandela to mourn his death and pay tribute to a leader who led the nation out of racial discord by encouraging reconciliation.
About 400 people gathered today outside Mandela’s home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, with some singing and holding up portraits of the nation’s first black president. Mandela, who had been critically ill following a lung infection, died peacefully at 8:50 p.m. local time yesterday at the age of 95, surrounded by his family, President Jacob Zuma said.
“He really is such an icon for the nation,” Rachael Shear, 16, said in an interview after coming to pay her respects with her 13-year-old sister Liat. “He’s someone that we’re not going to see again in our lifetime. From what I learned at school, the difference he made to South Africa, taking us out of our apartheid state to where we are today, South Africa wouldn’t be as it is unless we had him.”
Mandela was jailed for 27 years for fighting against white minority rule. He was released in 1990 and became president after the first multiracial elections four years later.
Neighbors and well-wishers began gathering since last night at Mandela’s Houghton home and his former residence in Soweto, a township southwest of Johannesburg. Zuma addressed the nation in a live TV broadcast last night to announce Mandela’s death.
The mood among those who came to pay their respects was celebratory of Mandela’s life, with many singing freedom songs, clapping their hands and stamping their feet. A group of kindergarten children outside Mandela’s former home in Soweto held up posters and sang the national anthem.
“We are grateful for what he has done for us,” Ntsiki Mthembu, who said she’s older than 60, said in an interview outside Mandela’s former Soweto home in Vilakazi street, which is now a museum. “Now he must rest in peace. It’s sad, but he lived his life to the fullest and we are all free.”
Mandela urged reconciliation after he was released from jail and negotiated a peaceful end to apartheid. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 together with F.W. de Klerk, the last white president.
“When I grew up he was a terrorist,” Clive Zulberg, 42, the chief executive officer of a security company who brought his three young sons to pay their respects at the house. “In school, I learned that he was a prisoner and when I started my business he was president and a great leader.”
Mandela will be given a state funeral, details of which are still to be announced. His body was moved from his Johannesburg home to a military hospital in Pretoria, the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corp. reported, without citing anyone.
“It’s a very painful period,” Lindiwe Zulu, an adviser to Zuma and a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, told reporters as she left Mandela’s home in Houghton. “While its a celebratory atmosphere outside, inside it really hits you, especially seeing the family.”
After a single five-year term as president, Mandela became a champion in the fight against AIDS, disclosing that one of his sons died from the disease. He retired from public life in 2004 and was last seen publicly at the soccer World Cup in Johannesburg three years ago. He was hospitalized four times in the past year.
U.S. President Barack Obama led tributes from world leaders, calling Mandela “one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth.”
Fellow Nobel Peace prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 82, called on South Africans to unify as they mourn Mandela, who is also known by his clan name, Madiba.
“Our potential is immense,” Tutu told reporters in Cape Town. “We are fantastic people. Madiba has reminded us of that.”
At Mandela’s Johannesburg home, people laid flowers, lit candles and placed teddy bears next to a barricade surrounding a corner of the property. In Soweto, people signed a 1.5 meter-long (4.9 feet) portrait of Mandela hanging outside the museum, and placed red roses and a scarf in the colors of South Africa’s flag near the entrance. About 20 members of the ruling African National Congress sang and danced in a circle.
The news of Mandela’s death came on the same night as the London premiere of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a film documenting his struggle against apartheid. Mandela’s two youngest daughters who were attending the premiere with guests such as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, left the theater during the screening when told of their father’s death, the Nelson Mandela Foundation said in an e-mailed statement.
“I do not remember Mr Mandela ill or sad or sick,” Jackie Ngubeni, who estimates his age at 48 or 49, said in an interview outside Mandela’s Houghton home. “I remember him a happy man, clenched fists up in the sky saying: ‘My people, my fellow citizens, my compatriots, you are free indeed’.”