For most of the world, his name is synonymous with courage and perseverance. Leaders and citizens, athletes and artists remembered Nelson Mandela on Friday — 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 many countries, a portrait of Mandela adorned the outside of France’s Foreign Ministry, mourners left flowers at a statue in London, and children in South Africa ran through the streets carrying his image.
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.”
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.” Both Annan and Tutu were part of Mandela’s group of African statesman known as The Elders.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
At the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., 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.”
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.
“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.
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.
Myanmar pro-democracy leader and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi hailed a “great human being who raised the standard of humanity. … He also made us understand that we can change the world.”
President Xi Jinping of China, which supported apartheid’s opponents throughout the Cold War, praised Mandela’s victory in the anti-apartheid struggle and his contribution to “the cause of human progress.”
For Chinese rights activists, Mandela’s death served as a reminder that one of their own symbols of freedom, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, remains imprisoned by Chinese authorities. “This moment magnifies how evil the current regime is,” Beijing activist Hu Jia said.
“ As we remember his triumphs, let us, in his memory, not just reflect on how far we’ve come, but on how far we have to go,” said the U.S. actor Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Mandela in the 2009 film “Invictus.”
“His actions helped save millions of lives and transformed health in Africa,” UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe said in a statement. “He broke the conspiracy of silence and gave hope that all people should live with dignity.”
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.”
“I’m stunned, crushed, in mourning with you and his family. I feel only honored to have portrayed him,” British actor Idris Elba, whose portrayal of Mandela is in theaters now, posted on Twitter. “He’s in a better place now. RIP NM.”
Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski of Poland called Mandela a “Titan of the 20th century.”
“All people who fought for freedom in the 20th century, including the Poles, understand what this great man meant to Africa and for the whole world,” he said.
Queen guitarist Brian May, a founding ambassador of Mandela’s 46664 charity, which assisted those infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, remembers spending time with him at a game park retreat while organizing a benefit concert in the South African city of Cape Town.
“They were life-changing days, with quiet time and talks around a camp fire at night, which we will remember ‘til we die. Mandela was the most inspiring man of his generation. His message, by example, was the power of forgiveness.”
Britain’s Prince Charles also paid tribute to Mandela’s sense of humor.
“Mr. Mandela was the embodiment of courage and reconciliation. He was also a man of great humor and had a real zest for life.”
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.
“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 Zimbabwean 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.