Nelson Mandela, who guided South Africa from the shackles of apartheid to multi-racial democracy and became an international icon of peace and reconciliation, died Thursday at age 95.
Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against white minority rule, Mandela emerged determined to use his prestige and charisma to bring down apartheid while avoiding a civil war.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come,” Mandela said in his acceptance speech on becoming South Africa’s first black president in 1994. “We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation.”
The streets of the capital Pretoria and of Johannesburg were hushed, and in bars and nightclubs, music was turned off as people gathered to quietly talk about the news.
A sombre Zuma told the nation in a televised address that Mandela “passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20h50 on the 5th of December 2013”. “He is now resting. He is now at peace,” Zuma said.
Tributes began flooding in almost immediately for a man who was a global symbol of struggle against injustice and of racial reconciliation.
“Today a great freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela has died, one of the world’s most important symbols of freedom,” said Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior official of the Palestinian Islamist Hamas group, calling Mandela “one of the biggest supporters of our cause.”
In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro declared three days of national mourning.
“Nine months since the passing of our comandante (Hugo Chavez), another giant of the people of the world passed away today. Madiba you will live forever!” Maduro said on Twitter.
Ordinary South Africans were in shock. 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.
The loss of a figure famous as a peacemaker comes at a time when South Africa, which basked in global goodwill when apartheid ended, has been experiencing bloody labour unrest, growing protests against poor services, poverty, crime and unemployment and corruption scandals tainting Zuma’s rule.