WASHINGTON — President Obama marked the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died in Pretoria today at age 95, by noting that his own first “political action” was an anti-apartheid protest.
Having served 27 years behind bars for various sedition charges, Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and forged an end to apartheid with President F.W. de Klerk. The two shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. De Klerk, 77, was hospitalized in July to have a pacemaker installed.
Mandela had been in failing health for years and various media reports over the past few months said that he was in a critical to unresponsive state.
South African President Jacob Zuma announced to the world that Mandela “passed on peacefully in the company of his family” just before 9 p.m. local time.
“Our thoughts are with his friends, comrades and colleagues who fought alongside Madiba over the course of a lifetime of struggle. Our thoughts are with the South African people who today mourn the loss of the one person who, more than any other, came to embody their sense of a common nationhood,” Zuma said. “Our thoughts are with the millions of people across the world who embraced Madiba as their own, and who saw his cause as their cause. This is the moment of our deepest sorrow.”
“A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time,” British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted. “I’ve asked for the flag at No10 to be flown at half mast.”
Reporters were quickly called to the White House briefing room for a live statement by President Obama.
Obama began with a quote from Mandela at the closing of his trial in 1964:”I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
“Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal, and he made it real. He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today, he has 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. He no longer belongs to us — he belongs to the ages,” Obama said.
Saying that Mandela “set an example that all humanity should aspire to ,” Obama said, “I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life.”
“My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears,” he continued. “And 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.”
“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.”
Obama said Mandela “bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”
“May God bless his memory and keep him in peace,” he concluded.
Former President George W. Bush said Mandela “was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.”
“He bore his burdens with dignity and grace, and our world is better off because of his example,” Bush said in a statement. “This good man will be missed, but his contributions will live on forever. Laura and I send our heartfelt sympathy to President Mandela’s family and to the citizens of the nation he loved.”
Former President George H.W. Bush said as commander in chief, he “watched in wonder as Nelson Mandela had the remarkable capacity to forgive his jailers following 26 years of wrongful imprisonment – setting a powerful example of redemption and grace for us all.”
“He was a man of tremendous moral courage, who changed the course of history in his country.”
“I will never forget my friend Madiba,” former President Bill Clinton tweeted with a photo of himself, holding Mandela’s hand.
Reactions from Congress came quickly.
“As an inspirational leader, Nelson Mandela brought about a better way of life for his people of South Africa and inspired millions throughout the world,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. “While we are all saddened by his passing, his personal story and contributions to freedom, democracy, and human rights will live on forever.”
“Nelson Mandela taught us about humanity in the face of inhumanity, and left an unjust world a more just place. He ended Apartheid and united a nation, while demonstrating almost supernatural gifts of inner strength, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Few individuals in human history can truly claim a legacy of peace and perseverance like Mandela can,” Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “We as a global community are fortunate to have benefited from Mandela’s greatness and will forever be awed by his brave journey. My meeting with President Mandela in South Africa years ago left me humbled by his humility and inspired by his fortitude – it was a moment that I never will forget. The world’s thoughts and prayers are with his family and the people of South Africa. Let us honor President Mandela’s legacy by re-committing ourselves to fight injustice in whatever form it exists, and promote democracy and human rights throughout all corners of the globe.”
Separately, the White House released a statement from National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
“Even as we mourn, we remember how privileged the world was to witness the transformation he wrought by changing minds and hearts. He was apartheid’s captive but never its prisoner, and he rid the world of one of history’s foulest evils by hewing to universal principles for which he hoped to live but was prepared to die,” Rice said. “Let us celebrate Madiba’s life by rededicating ourselves to the values and hopes he embodied: reconciliation and justice, freedom and equality, democracy and human rights, an honest reckoning with the past and an unflinching insistence on embracing our common humanity. Let us strive to follow in his noble path—to stretch out the hand of fellowship and forgiveness across the deepest of gulfs, to find peaceful ways to resolve the bitterest of conflicts, and to insist on the revolutionary power of empathy, persuasion, perseverance, and human dignity.”
Mandela will be accorded a state funeral and a 10-day-long memorial period, Zuma said, reminding South Africans “as we gather to pay our last respects, let us conduct ourselves with the dignity and respect that Madiba personified.”
World leaders will likely turn out en masse for the funeral. Obama visited South Africa in June when Mandela was in critical yet stable condition, but did not visit the anti-apartheid icon.
South African media reported at the time that concern in the country about Mandela’s health overshadowed Obama’s visit. “All that matters in the end is Madiba. We had great hopes for Obama when he was elected the first time, however he has not lived up to the promise,” said one commenter on the News 24 website at the time. “However Madiba did do what he set out to do, he achieved what his young man dreams were and we salute Madiba. He is all that matters. And our President has shown his commitment to Madiba over the last weeks and I can salute our President. Viva President Zuma!”
De Klerk told CNN that his old colleague will be remembered for his “commitment to reconciliation, his remarkable lack of bitterness.”
“He was a remarkable man and South Africa stands united today in mourning this exceptional man,” de Klerk said. “…He was a great unifier and a very, very special man. This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy.”