VATICAN CITY, Dec 6 — Pope Francis today paid tribute to anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela for “forging a new South Africa” and said he hoped his example would inspire the nation to strive for “justice and the common good”.
Francis praised the “steadfast commitment shown by Nelson Mandela in promoting the human dignity of all the nation's citizens and in forging a new South Africa,” in a message to President Jacob Zuma.
“I pray that the late president's example will inspire generations of South Africans to put justice and the common good at the forefront of their political aspirations,” the leader of the world's Catholics wrote.
“It was with sadness that I learned of the death ... and I send prayerful condolences to all the Mandela family, to the members of the government and to all the people of South Africa,” the pope said.
“I ask the Lord to console and strengthen all who mourn his loss.”
The world grappled with the loss of South Africa's beloved Nelson Mandela, a towering figure of the 20th century who inspired millions across the globe with his struggle for equality.
Mandela's Rainbow Nation awoke to a future without its 95-year-old founding father after the country's first black president died late on Thursday at his Johannesburg home, surrounded by friends and family.
As his compatriots paid lively tributes to the revered anti-apartheid hero with flowers, songs and dance, countries around the world united in an outpouring of emotion, pondering his legacy and remembering key moments in the Nobel Peace laureate's astonishing life.
Mandela spent 27 years in an apartheid prison before becoming president and unifying his country with a message of reconciliation. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with South Africa's last white president F.W. de Klerk in 1993.
“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” US leader Barack Obama, his country's own first black president, said in a televised statement, leading a global roll call of commemoration.
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man.”
Flags flew at half-mast in numerous countries, including the United States, France and Britain and at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
In Paris, the Eiffel Tower lit up in green, red, yellow and blue to symbolise the South African flag while India declared five days of mourning for a man the premier labelled “a true Gandhian”.
Mandela had waged a long battle against a recurring lung infection and had been receiving treatment at home since September following a lengthy hospital stay.
Outside his house in the upmarket Houghton suburb, admirers held a boisterous vigil, dancing, ululating and singing old liberation songs to celebrate the man they lovingly call Madiba.
Some stood in pyjamas having rushed from their homes after hearing of his passing, several clutching children too young to have known the brutal and racist South Africa that Mandela fought to overcome.
“I did not come here to mourn. We are celebrating the life of a great man. A great unifier,” said local resident Bobby Damon.
In Cape Town, Archbishop Desmond Tutu led an emotional prayer for his friend and fellow Nobel laureate, expressing hope that Mandela's vision of a South Africa for all creeds and colours will 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.
That sentiment was echoed by Mandela's prison mate and struggle stalwart Tokyo Sexwale.
“The grief that we see today, the tears that are flowing the emotions that have welled will all subside,” he told AFP.
“It is left now for us South Africans to show the world that the light of Mandela will not be extinguished. It is for us to prove to the world we are worthy of his legacy.”
President Jacob Zuma said Mandela will be given a full state funeral expected to be attended by a slew of foreign leaders as well as celebrity and sports figures.
Mandela's body was taken to a military hospital in Pretoria in preparation for lying in state ahead of the funeral ceremony.
While the ailing former statesman's death had long been expected after a spate of hospitalisations, 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” - along with Britain's Prince William - when they learned of his death.
Prince Charles said Mandela “was the embodiment of courage and reconciliation. He was also a man of great humour and had a real zest for life.”
Today, Mandela's eldest grandson expressed gratitude for the international outpouring of support.
“The messages we have received since last night have heartened and overwhelmed us,” said Mandla Mandela.
'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 humour 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.
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 served most of his jail time on Robben Island. 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 then took on the task of persuading de Klerk to call time on the era of racist white minority rule.
'We can change the world'
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 finalised 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”.
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