JOHANNESBURG — As the news of Nelson Mandela’s death spread across South Africa, residents of the black township of Soweto gathered in the streets near the house where he once lived, singing and dancing to mourn his death and celebrate his colossal life.
The people of South Africa reacted Friday with deep sadness at the loss of a man considered by many to be the father of the nation, while mourners said it was also a time to celebrate the achievements of the anti-apartheid leader who emerged from prison to become South Africa’s first black president.
President Jacob Zuma, dressed in black, announced the news of Mandela’s death Thursday night on television, saying the 95-year-old known affectionately by his clan name “Madiba” had died “peacefully” at around 8:50 p.m. while in the company of his family.
“He is now resting. He is now at peace,” Zuma said. “Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”
The president said all national flags would be lowered to half-mast from Friday until after a state funeral. Many South Africans, having missed the news after going to bed, would awaken to a country without its spiritual and moral leader.
“First sleep in a Mandela-less world,” South African journalist Brendan Boyle tweeted. “We’re on our own now.”
In the black of night, several hundred people milled around outside Mandela’s home in the leafy Houghton neighborhood of Johannesburg. The mood was lively rather than somber. Some sang and swayed. A man blew on a vuvuzela, the plastic horn widely used at World Cup soccer games in South Africa in 2010. Another marched toward the house and shouted: “Nelson!” People photographed a makeshift shrine of candles, a national flag and bouquets of flowers. A framed portrait of a smiling Mandela was propped against a tree with the caption: “Rest in peace, Madiba.”
Mandela had been receiving medical care in the home in past months, where he had been in critical condition.
Some residents of Soweto gathered in front of Nelson Mandela’s old home in the early hours of the morning to mark his death.
About 40 people formed a circle in the middle of Vilakazi Street and sang songs from the anti-apartheid struggle. Some people were draped in South African flags and the green, yellow and black colors of Mandela’s party, the African National Congress.
“We have not seen Mandela in the place where he is, in the place where he is kept,” they sang, a lyric that anti-apartheid protesters had sung during Mandela’s long incarceration.
“We are celebrating his life and all that he did for us,” said Terry Mokoena, 47, who had taped the words “Rest In Peace” on his Mandela T-shirt. “I am happy that he is now at peace. He has done so much for us, it would be greedy for us to say that he should do more. Mandela united us — black, white, colored and Indian — he taught us togetherness.”
In front of Mandela’s old Soweto home, now a tourist attraction, two men made a shrine of flowers and candles.
“He came here to Soweto as a lawyer and he led us. When he came out of jail in 1994, after 27 years, he did not come out a bitter man and encourage us to fight. No, he came out with a message of peace,” said Mbulelo Radebe, 37.
At Nelson Mandela Square in the upscale Sandton neighborhood of Johannesburg, six people stood at the foot of a six-yard (meter) bronze statue of Mandela, paying homage to the leader. The six were two whites, two blacks and two of Indian descent, representing South Africa’s “rainbow nation” that Mandela had fought and sacrificed for.
“For 23 years, I walked a path with this man since he was released,” said Sonja Pocock, a white 46-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative. “I’m from the old regime. He’s like my grandfather. He is my grandfather.”
The blonde sales executive burst into tears.
Krezaan Schoeman, a 38-year-old Afrikaner colleague of Pocock’s, spoke as her friend went to arrange some red flowers she had laid at the statue’s feet. It was past midnight and the square, ringed by restaurants with Christmas lights arrayed on fake trees casting a silvery glow, was mostly empty.
“I admired him. He stood for something, for freedom and equality,” Schoeman said. “Even if some say he was a terrorist, he stood for his beliefs. Everybody’s got a right to life. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white. That’s what he stood for. And for forgiveness.”
Standing nearby with a friend, Valentino More, a black 24-year-old student, said he had heard of Mandela’s death on Twitter, then had rushed home to see Zuma make the announcement. He then came to Mandela Square, needing to pay tribute.
“It came as a shock,” More said. “It’s a big day, actually, because our father just passed.”
Big gatherings of mourners were expected in coming days as the country prepares a formal farewell for a man who helped guide the country from racial conflict to all-race elections in 1994.
“He transcended race and class in his personal actions, through his warmth and through his willingness to listen and to emphasize with others,” retired archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a statement. “He taught us that to respect those with whom we are politically or socially or culturally at odds is not a sign of weakness, but a mark of self-respect.”
F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era president, said he and Mandela first met each other in 1989 and concluded they could do business with each other as the country embarked on its long-awaited transition to democratic rule.
“Although we were political opponents — and although our relationship was often stormy — we were always able to come together at critical moments to resolve the many crises that arose during the negotiation process,” de Klerk said in a statement.
Human rights advocate George Bizos told eNCA television that Mandela, a longtime friend, never wavered in his dedication to non-racial and democratic ideals.
“He was larger than life,” Bizos said. “We will not find another like him.”