South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela died peacefully at home at the age of 95 on Thursday after months fighting a lung infection, leaving his nation and the world mourning.
The former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate had been frail and ailing for nearly a year with a recurring lung illness that dated back to the 27 years he spent in apartheid jails, including the notorious Robben Island penal colony.
President Jacob Zuma’s announcement late on Thursday of the death of a man who was a symbol of struggle against injustice and of racial reconciliation reverberated through South Africa and around the world. It triggered an avalanche of tributes.
Mandela’s passing, while long expected, left Africa’s biggest economy still distant from being the “Rainbow Nation” ideal of social peace and shared prosperity that he had proclaimed on his triumphant release from prison in 1990.
When Zuma made his broadcast, the streets of the capital, Pretoria, and of Johannesburg were hushed, and in bars and nightclubs, music was turned off as people quietly listened.
A somber Zuma told the nation that Mandela “passed on peacefully in the company of his family”.
Among the shower of tributes, U.S. President Barack Obama said the world had lost “one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth”.
British 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”.
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.
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.
“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.