Nelson Mandela worked his magic once more yesterday, uniting friends and foes alike in a global outpouring of grief as they mourned the death of the anti-apartheid icon.
Palestinians and Israelis, Beijing and the Dalai Lama, Washington and Tehran all joined together to remember a man whose message of equality inspired millions across the globe.
Foreshadowing the guest list of what will surely be the most important funeral of recent decades, foreign dignitaries as well as celebrities, sports figures and religious leaders queued to issue solemn tributes to the 95-year-old peace hero who became South Africa’s first democratic president.
“He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages,” Barack Obama, America’s first black president, said in a deliberate echo of an early tribute paid to Abraham Lincoln, the president who emancipated slaves.
In a rare homage, flags flew at half mast in several countries, including the US, France, Britain, Nigeria, and India, which declared five days of national mourning for the man hailed by prime minister Manmohan Singh as a “true Gandhian”.
“In a world marked by division, his was an example of working for reconciliation and harmony and we are not likely to see another of his kind for a long time to come,” said Singh.
Over and over, leaders returned to the dignity Mandela displayed during his 27 years of imprisonment by South Africa’s former racist regime and then later, when he led his country to majority rule.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon declared Mandela a “giant for justice”.
“Many around the world were influenced by his selfless struggle for human dignity, equality, and freedom. He touched our lives in deeply personal ways,” he said.
British prime minister David Cameron, who in 2006 apologised for what he said were the “mistakes” of his Conservative Party in its response to apartheid in Britain’s former colony, said: “A great light has gone out in the world.”
Nigeria’s president Goodluck Jonathan dubbed him “one of mankind’s greatest liberators” and declared three days of national mourning, while Guinea’s Alpha Conde described Mandela as “the pride and honour of Africa”.
Russian president Vladimir Putin recognised the former statesman as “one of the greatest politicians in modern times” and China’s president Xi Jinping honoured his “historic contribution” to South Africa and the world.
Israel’s leaders called him a champion of peace, despite his tireless advocacy of the Palestinian cause.
Retired political figures who remembered Mandela during his imprisonment or worked with him after his 1990 release were also effusive. Former US president Bill Clinton said “the world has lost one of its most important leaders and one of its finest human beings” while ex-French president Jacques Chirac said “a great light has gone out”.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said Mandela was a “builder of bridges of peace and dialogue” who changed the course of history, while prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised his moral leadership.
“He was never haughty,” said Netanyahu. “He worked to heal rifts within South African society and succeeded in preventing outbreaks of racial hatred.”
At the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, on display is a photograph of the US boxing great with Mandela, their hands clenched into fists as if they’re boxing.
“He made us realise, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colours,” said Ali.
“He was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge.”
Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, shared with South Africa’s last apartheid leader FW de Klerk for their role in ensuring a peaceful transition to elected rule.
De Klerk said though his relationship with Mandela was “often stormy,” they were “always able to come together at critical moments”.
“I believe that his example will live on and that it will continue to inspire all South Africans to achieve his vision of non-racialism, justice, human dignity, and equality for all,” he added.
Another Nobel laureate paying tribute was Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who like Mandela spent many years in detention. She lamented the passing of a “great human being who... made us understand that we can change the world”.
The Dalai Lama said “the best tribute we can pay to him is to do whatever we can to contribute to honouring the oneness of humanity and working for peace and reconciliation as he did”.
The Norwegian Nobel committee called Mandela “one of the greatest names in the long history of the Nobel Peace Prize”. Pope Francis paid tribute to 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”.
Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban, to champion girls’ rights to education, called him “my leader” and “a perpetual inspiration for me and millions of others around the world”.
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