JOHANNESBURG – As the news of Nelson Mandela’s death spread across South Africa on Thursday, residents 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 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 about 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-staff 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.”
As night stretched toward dawn, several hundred people celebrated Mandela’s life outside his home in the leafy Houghton neighborhood of Johannesburg. 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.
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 and had been in critical condition. A similar celebration took place outside Mandela’s former home on Vilakazi Street in the Soweto area of Johannesburg.
The news spread quicky across the globe.
President Obama praised the human rights leader as an inspiration and a paragon of forgiveness and virtue “that all of humanity should aspire to.”
“Like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set. And so long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him,” said Obama, who met the anti-apartheid champion in Washington in 2005. Mandela was too ill to receive visitors during Obama’s trip to Africa last June.
“Today he’s gone home, and we have lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth,” the first black U.S. president said of the first black South African president. “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”
Former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush also issued statements lauding, as the elder Bush said, “one of the greatest believers in freedom we have had the privilege to know.”
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 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.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Mandela “a singular figure on the global stage – a man of quiet dignity and towering achievement, a giant for justice and a down-to-earth human inspiration.”
At the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., a photograph shows the U.S. boxing great with Mandela, their hands clenched into fists as if they’re boxing.
“He made us realize, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colors,” Ali said. “What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that 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.”
In London, people attending the premiere of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” were told of his death as the closing credits rolled. When the news broke, Mandela’s daughters asked that the film continue “and immediately left the cinema,” a production spokesman said.
The film’s producer, Anant Singh, announced Mandela’s death once the film was over, and he called for a moment of silence.
Said actor Idris Elba, who plays Mandela in the film: “I am stunned at this very moment, in mourning with the rest of the world and Madiba’s family. We have lost one of the greatest human beings to have walked this earth.”
The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.