U.S. President Barack Obama called Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy a touchstone for him and an example “that all humanity should aspire to,” as tributes from world leaders poured in for South Africa’s first post-apartheid president.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel cited his “shining example.” French President Francois Hollande said his message of reconciliation “will inspire those who battle for liberty.” India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his death was “a loss to the world.”
Mandela, a freedom fighter who emerged from 27 years in prison to become South Africa’s first elected black president, died yesterday at 95.
Obama will travel to South Africa next week to participate in memorial services for Mandela, White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. The president ordered U.S. flags to be lowered to half-staff until sunset on Dec. 9 in Mandela’s honor, according to a White House proclamation.
“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Obama, 52, said yesterday at the White House. “So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set.”
Prime Minister David Cameron of the U.K. said that “a great light has gone out in the world.”
“My heart goes out to his family, and to all in South Africa and around the world whose lives were changed through his courage,” Cameron said in a statement.
Hollande, who is hosting a summit of African leaders in Paris today, said Mandela “showed that the human spirit not only can break the chains of servitude, but can liberate energies to build a common future.” Flags on French government buildings and at the U.K. prime minister’s residence will fly at half-mast today.
“Mandela traversed great hardships and trials, but remained true to the noble ideals of humanism and justice right to the end,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe praised Mandela for setting an example of forgiveness. “After he succeeded in abolishing apartheid following a long struggle, he did not seek revenge, but took the lead in national reconciliation,” Abe said in a statement.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said Mandela “changed the lives of his people as well as the thinking of the world.”
Similar messages poured in from leaders of Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway. Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his condolences, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, 67, said Mandela will be remembered “as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life.”
Former President George H.W. Bush said Mandela was one of the greatest believers in freedom he had known.
“He was a man of tremendous moral courage, who changed the course in his country,” Bush, 89, said.
Lawmakers of both parties in the U.S. Congress praised Mandela for perseverance in the face of his long imprisonment.
Obama, the first black U.S. president, said during his White House remarks that he was “one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Mandela’s life. So long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him.”
Obama reflected on Mandela’s achievement in standing up to the apartheid government of South Africa, going to jail and emerging to continue a quest for reconciliation and equality.
“His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or our own personal lives,” the president said. “He achieved more than can be expected of any man.”
Obama also spoke by phone with South African President Jacob Zuma to offer condolences and convey “how profoundly Mandela’s extraordinary example of moral courage, kindness and humility influenced his own life,” the White House said in a statement. Obama also reaffirmed the “strong and historic partnership” between the two countries, the White House said.
Obama’s admiration for Mandela was evident during the U.S. president’s trip to Africa last June.
Throughout his stops in Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania, Obama repeatedly reflected on the legacy of the man he has credited with influencing his own political ambitions and sense of activism.
While his aides had considered arranging a meeting between the first black presidents of the U.S. and South Africa, Mandela’s failing health prevented a face-to-face session. Instead, Obama met with members of the Mandela family and spoke on the telephone with his wife, Graca Machel.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, brought daughters Sasha and Malia to Robben Island during the visit, to tour the lime quarry where Mandela labored as a prisoner and to stand in his apartheid-era cell.
Obama met Mandela just once, as a freshman U.S. senator in 2005 at a Washington hotel. The image captured from that moment -- a silhouetted Obama bending over to gently clasp a smiling Mandela’s hand -- hangs in Obama’s private White House residence. A color version, signed by Obama, has sat framed in Mandela’s study.
In his White House remarks yesterday, Obama recalled that his first political speech, delivered as a college student, was in opposition to apartheid and inspired by Mandela’s courage.
“Like so many around the globe,” Obama said. “I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.”