For most of the world, his name is synonymous with courage and perseverance. Leaders and citizens, athletes and artists remembered Nelson Mandela today — though many struggled to find words big enough to describe the man who changed the face of South Africa and inspired a continent and a world: a colossus, a father figure, a giant baobab tree providing shade for an entire nation.
Flags were lowered to half-staff in countries around the globe, some African countries declared days of mourning, children in South Africa ran through the streets carrying Mandela’s image, mourners in London waited in the cold to sign a condolence book, and the New York Stock Exchange held a minute of silence before the opening bell.
African leaders gathering in Paris for a summit about bringing peace and security to the troubled continent opened their conference with a moment of silence.
While Mandela inspired and challenged people everywhere to stand up for others, he had a special legacy for Africa. But his message there was often also an uncomfortable one for leaders who clung to power and amassed riches while their populations suffered.
In Gambia, for instance, intellectuals and public servants quietly wondered if the death of the South African icon would serve as a wakeup call to President Yahya Jammeh, who has ruled his West African nation with an iron fist, accused of imprisoning, torturing and killing his opponents, including journalists. Jammeh has yet to comment on Mandela’s death.
A guiding light for Africa
"God was so good to us in South Africa by giving us Nelson Mandela to be our president at a crucial moment in our history," Archbishop Desmond Tutu said. "He inspired us to walk the path of forgiveness and reconciliation, and so South Africa did not go up in flames."
"He is comparable to a great baobab, this invincible tree under which everyone shelters. And when this baobab falls, we find ourselves exposed," said Guinea President Alpha Conde.
South African Foreign Minister Maite Mashabane told the summit in Paris that Africans must work together to achieve peace and fulfill Mandela’s vision.
"We will do so, if we work together to find a peaceful resolution so that our people can continue to put peace, security and development together in the name of our father, who chose no revenge, who said South Africa belongs to all living in it, irrespective of color or creed, who made the impossible possible."
Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the world had lost "a visionary leader, a courageous voice for justice and a clear moral compass."
An icon of the struggle for democracy
In Haiti, a Caribbean nation that became the world’s first black republic in 1804 through a successful slave revolt, Mandela symbolized the struggle for black equality.
"Mandela is not only the father of democracy in South Africa, but is also a symbol of democracy," said Haitian President Michel Martelly. "And like any symbol, he is not dead. He is present in all of us and guides us by his lifestyle, his courage and faith in the true struggle for equality."
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India compared Mandela to his country’s own icon for the struggle for freedom, independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.
"A giant among men has passed away. This is as much India’s loss as South Africa’s. He was a true Gandhian. His life and work will remain a source of eternal inspiration for generations to come."
"When he could leave prison after 27 years of suffering, that coincided with the fall of communism in our part of the world, thus Mandela became a moral compass, a source of inspiration not only in South Africa but in our region, too," Hungarian President Janos Ader said in a letter addressed to his South African counterpart, Jacob Zuma.
Palestinians have pinned photos of Mandela on Israel’s separation barrier to draw a parallel between his struggle against apartheid and theirs against Israeli occupation.
Several dozen demonstrators marched from the West Bank village of Bilin to the nearby barrier today, chanting "Mandela, Mandela" and pinning 20 photos of the former South African leader to the wire mesh fence.
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban and now campaigns for girls’ right to education, paid tribute to Mandela, whom she called "my leader."
"Nelson Mandela is physically separated from us, but his soul and spirit will never die," Yousafzai said in a statement.
An inspiration to the world
"He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages," said President Barack Obama, who shares with Mandela the distinction of being his nation’s first black president.
At the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky, on display is a photograph of 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. "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."
"Nelson Mandela is an example. An example of resistance in the face of oppression. An example of freedom in the face of injustice. An example of dignity in the face of humiliation. … An example of forgiveness in the face of hatred," French President Francois Hollande said as he opened the summit in Paris, devoted to bringing peace to Africa.
Hollande said that Mandela’s spirit would preside over the summit.
"Nelson Mandela was convinced that it is not hatred and revenge that make the world better, but reconciliation and political change — and that is how he lived," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin. "That is why he is a giant of history, a statesman with a message that is valid in every country and at every time."
"I can say that the planet, our world has lost a friend," American poet Maya Angelou said. "He was a friend to everybody and he dared to live so and dared to love so that he could forgive."
The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awarded the 1993 peace prize to Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, called Mandela "one of the greatest names in the long history of the Nobel Peace Prize."
"His work presents a message also today to all those who bear responsibility for apparently unresolvable conflicts: Even the most bitter of conflicts can be solved by peaceful means," the committee said.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose efforts to open up his country helped lead to the end of the Cold War, said Mandela "told me several times that our perestroika in the USSR had helped his country a lot to get rid of apartheid."
"He did a lot for humankind, and memory of him will live not only in his country, but across the world," Gorbachev said in comments carried by the Interfax news agency.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the African summit in Paris that, despite his accomplishments, Mandela was always humble.
"When I thanked him for his lifelong work and contribution to ending apartheid and to peace and stability and humanity, he refused to take the compliments from me," said Ban about their meeting a few years ago. "He stressed that there were hundreds of hundreds, so many known and unknown people who helped him, who deserved just as much praise and perhaps even more."
In New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, artist Franco Gaskin, 85, stood before a mural featuring Mandela he had painted on a storefront gate almost 20 years ago. He remembered a Mandela visit there in 1990. "It was dynamic. Everyone was so electrified to see him in Harlem," Gaskin said. "I idolized him so much. He leaves a legacy that all of us should follow."
An uncomfortable legacy
Robert Mugabe, whose wasted Zimbabwe is often held up as the counterpoint to Mandela’s multiracial, prosperous South Africa, has yet to comment on Mandela’s death. Mugabe recently criticized Mandela for being too conciliatory to whites.
But Zimbabwe’s opposition hailed him as an icon.
"Africa should continue to produce more Mandelas who think more about the people than personal power; for whom the people’s welfare is more important than the selfish pursuit of personal power and glory," said opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
Speaking under condition of anonymity, a top official at the Gambian Civil Service, who could not be named for fear of reprisal, said President Jammeh should emulate the leadership qualities that Mandela had shown.
"Our president should be the first person to reflect on Mandela’s legacy," he said.