World leaders and human rights activists mourned the death of Nelson Mandela on Thursday, praising the beloved South African freedom fighter and former president as a moral giant whose strength and sacrifice changed the world.
At the White House, President Obama praised the civil 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.
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today he has gone home,” Obama said. “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.”
The president noted that his first experience with political activism – “the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or policy or politics” – was a college protest against apartheid.
“I would study his words and his writings. The day he was released from prison it gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears,” Obama said.
Late Thursday, Obama signed a proclamation honoring Mandela and ordering that flags at U.S. buildings here and abroad be flown at half-staff until sunset Monday.
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.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his respects and condolences via Twitter: “A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time.”
President Bill Clinton, whose tenure in the 1990s coincided with Mandela’s historic evolution from political prisoner to head of state, lamented the loss of “one of (the world’s) most important leaders and one of its finest human beings.”
Both former Presidents Bush released statements regretting the loss of an icon whose life’s journey was a story of the triumph of right over wrong.
“Barbara and I mourn the passing of one of the greatest believers in freedom we have had the privilege to know,” George H.W. Bush, said in a message sent with his wife. “As president, I 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.”
Bush’s son, President George W. Bush, remembered Mandela as “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. This good man will be missed, but his contributions will live on forever.”
Across America, politicians were united in their praise.
“Nelson Mandela taught us about humanity in the face of inhumanity, and left an unjust world a more just place,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “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.”
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, on Twitter, hailed Mandela as “an unsurpassed healer of human hearts.”
“It is hard to overstate Nelson Mandela’s transformative impact on his country and the world,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs. “The lesson of his personal determination in the face of decades of imprisonment and oppression, followed by his unwavering grace and forgiveness toward his former captors is one of the great reconciliation stories in human history.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recalled the ticker-tape parade in his city for Mandela in 1990, the year of his release after 27 years of imprisonment for challenging white rule in South Africa, as well as Mandela’s visit after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
“Today, we lost one of the most transformative and influential figures in modern history. Nelson Mandela was a global icon who broke the back of apartheid in South Africa and inspired generations of people around the world with his spirit of resolve and reconciliation,” Bloomberg said.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, like Mandela a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said the world mourned the loss of “a colossus of unimpeachable moral character and integrity, the world’s most admired and revered public figure.”