He was remembered as a freedom fighter, a political prisoner, a moral icon impervious to hate, and a reconciler of seemingly irreconcilable camps. He was recalled as the crucial figure in the struggle that ended apartheid in South Africa, and as the president who then put aside retribution in favor of building a lasting democracy.
But as the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela, who died at his home in Johannesburg on Thursday night, words of loss resonated less as historical underscoring than as a collective yearning for a future in which his signature virtues would persevere: Through a human life as complex and vulnerable to contradiction as any other, Mandela consistently evinced an unwavering commitment to improving his nation and the state of human society.
In Britain, David Cameron praised Mandela as “a towering figure in our time; a legend in life and now in death – a true global hero,” adding that “a great light has gone out in the world.” Former prime minister Tony Blair celebrated Mandela as a transformational figure whose impacts on the events of his era went beyond his own nation.
“He came to represent something that was much more than just about the resolution of the issues of apartheid and of South Africa,” Blair said. “He came to represent something quite inspirational for the future of the world and for peace and reconciliation in the 21st century.”
In Washington, President Barack Obama called Mandela “one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with,” adding: “He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.”
Obama spoke about Mandela’s importance in strikingly personal terms, a recognition of the historical distinction they share as the first black men elected to their nation’s highest offices.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” Obama said. “I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example set by Nelson Mandela.”
Those words effectively closed the book on previous American conceptions of Mandela who, until 2008, remained on the nation’s terrorist watch list given his support for armed resistance.
In a sign that this sort of sentiment has yet to be dispatched to history, Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakastani activist who has earned global acclaim for championing the cause of girls’ education, issued a statement in which she called Mandela “my leader.”
“He belongs to the whole world because he is an icon of equality, freedom and love, the values we need all the time everywhere,” Malala said. “His long, long struggle is a great demonstration of humanity.”
In Italy, Minister of Integration Cecile Kyenge — the first black woman to serve at that level of Italian government — also described Mandela as a historical current whose force lives on even after his death.
“He leaves the whole world a message of civil society that has accompanied us throughout the twentieth century and that will accompany future generations for centuries to come,” Kyenge said. “The man himself has passed away but he left his light on, a flame that we will continue to feed in conveying his being, his teachings.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Mandela “a giant of history,” whose focus on peaceful change over historical revenge made him a “statesman with a message that is valid in every country and at every time.”
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed sorrow for the loss of “a beacon of hope for the future,” while emphasizing how Mandela had focused on bridging the racial chasm dividing his country in the years after apartheid.
“Not only was former President Mandela a tireless fighter, he was also a promoter of reconciliation,” Abe said. “Indeed, after bringing about the abolition of apartheid at the end of long years of suffering, he devoted himself to the pursuit of national unity rather than seeking vengeance.”
Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino expressed admiration for Mandela’s willingness to acknowledge the role of F.W. de Klerk, the last South African president under apartheid, in working to eradicate the racist system. “It was not an easy thing to say, and to say it in those years to his people,” Bonino said. “Yet Mandela had the intellectual honesty to proclaim it and to start his policy of reconciliation.”
Mandela’s death also achieved something exceedingly rare in global events — a unity of expression across the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Palestinians had long celebrated Mandela as a kindred spirit, a hero who championed the Palestinian fight against Israeli occupation. Mandela embraced the Palestinian Liberation Organization and heralded late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as a “fellow freedom fighter.”
Reacting to his death, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas praised Mandela as a “symbol of freedom from colonialism and occupation,” calling him the “most courageous and important of those who supported us.”
“Mandela was an example of freedom and struggle to every Palestinian,” Mohammed Al-Khatib, a young Palestinian man from the southern West Bank city of Hebron, told The Huffington Post. Hebron, referred to as the epicenter of the Palestinian struggle, is a city of concrete barriers, armed Israeli soldiers, and segregated roads and bus lines. “Mandela has a big part in inspiring us for our struggle,” Al-Khatib said.
At the same time, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Mandela as “a figure that set one of the greatest examples in our time,” while even calling him a “freedom fighter who opposed violence,” although Mandela led both peaceful and armed resistance.
It was a striking contrast from years past, in which Israel and Mandela were at odds, given Israel’s close alignment with the apartheid state of South Africa and Mandela’s praise of the PLO.
Across much of the Arab world — now grappling with the complexities of erecting viable governments in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions that swept the region — Mandela’s passing occasioned much talk that his ideals were needed among local leaders.
In Egypt in particular, many people took to social media to commemorate Mandela’s lifelong fight for justice while emphasizing the need for similar leadership in their own country.
Hafsa Halawa, an Egyptian-Brit who has advocated democracy and drawn the ire of Egypt’s rulers, tweeted Thursday night: “Right now all I can think, is how much Egypt could’ve been so different if we had had our own Mandela.”
Ashraf Swelam, a member of a committee now amending the Egyptian constitution, tweeted Thursday, saying: “On the day South Africa’s Nelson Mandela dies, I hope Egypt’s Mandela is born somewhere. RIP hero.”
Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy compared Mandela to other African leaders, like former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who is often viewed as a symbol of national pride despite some criticism of his legacy.
But in response to these comparisons, well-known Egyptian blogger Zeinobia tweeted: “We do not need another Nasser now in Egypt. We need another Mandela.”
In Great Britain, which served as a key venue for the anti-apartheid movement, politicians from across the spectrum united in paying tribute as soon as news of Mandela’s death was announced. Political figures gathered outside the South African embassy in London’s Trafalgar Square, and crowds outside the embassy wore scarves and sang freedom songs, crying “Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela” and “Viva Mandela.”
The area around the statue of Mandela in London’s Parliament Square opposite the Houses of Parliament has become an impromptu memorial garden. One tribute on a card left by the statue’s feet read: ‘’Thank you for the sacrifices you made for all of us.’’ A second read: ‘’May God shine light on your homecoming in heaven. Rest in Peace Mr Mandela.’’
Canada also felt special affinity with Mandela, owing to its cooperation during the anti-apartheid movement. In the 1980s, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stood apart from other western leaders in imposing strict sanctions on the South African government.
“A precious light has gone out in the world,” Mulroney said Thursday in a statement. “Let us remember though, that nothing can extinguish the flame of freedom he lit in South Africa. Nothing will dim the power of his message of tolerance, of integrity, and statesmanship.”
Historians say Mandela used Canada as a model for the new South African state.
“Your respect for diversity within your own society and your tolerant and civilized manner of dealing with the challenges of difference and diversity had always been our inspiration,” Mandela told Parliament during his first visit in 1990.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who will likely attend Mandela’s funeral next week, praised Mandela for his “legendary” forgiveness and forbearance.
“He demonstrated that the only path forward for the nation was to reject the appeal of bitterness,” Harper said.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy paid tribute to Mandela on Twitter, writing that the South African leader had been “a key figure in recent history; an example in the fight for equality. In all of our hearts. Farewell, Madiba.”
French President Francois Hollande described Mandela as a transcendent figure whose import outlives his days on earth.
“Nelson Mandela’s message will not disappear,” Hollande said in a statement. “It will continue to inspire freedom fighters and give confidence to the people in defense of just causes and universal human rights.”
Goodman reported from New York, and Jones from Cairo. Additional reporting was contributed by Ned Simons in London, Alexandre Boudet in Paris, Giulia Belardelli in Rome, Jaweed Kaleem in Pakistan, Susanne Klaiber in Munich, Michael Bolen in Toronto, and Ana Torres and Isabel Alonso in Madrid.