The lion of South Africa sleeps forever tonight.
Nelson Mandela, who led the fight against apartheid and then pushed for reconciliation as his country’s first black president, died after a prolonged illness Thursday. He was 95.
“He passed on peacefully in the comfort of his family,” South African President Jacob Zuma said in an address to the world just before midnight Thursday in the African nation. “We’ve lost our greatest son.”
As word of the death of the man South Africans called Madiba spread across the heartbroken country, hundreds of weeping mourners converged on Mandela’s home in Johannesburg, chanting, “Viva Mandela, viva!”
Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, met with Nelson Mandela in 2012.
Fittingly, blacks and whites mourned Mandela together.
“If it wasn’t for Mandela, I wouldn’t be chilling with my black friends,” said 19-year-old Dominic Sadie, who is white and was part of the giant crowd of people holding candles and paying their respects. “I love him.”
Mandela died at 8:50 p.m. local time, but Zuma didn’t make his sad announcement until a little before midnight.
Weeping South Africans raced out into streets in their pajamas, including one black mom who rushed over to Mandela’s house with her two daughters.
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Nelson Mandela was, among many things, a capable boxer during his accomplished life.
“I am glad that he is in a better place, but I hope South Africans will be able to deal with his death,” she said through her tears.
Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last president during the era of state-sanctioned racial segregation.
“I liked him and I immediately felt that this is truly a man of greatness,” de Klerk recalled. “I think Nelson Mandela’s legacy is don’t be bitter about the past, take the hands also of your former enemies.”
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Anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress member Nelson Mandela raises his fist while addressing a crowd of residents in Tokoza in 1990, the year he was released after 27 years in prison.
In Washington, President Obama said Mandela “no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.”
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Mandela’s life,” Obama said at the White House. “So long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him.”
Obama ordered that flags be flown at half-staff until sunset Monday and prepared to fly out to South Africa for a state funeral.
Former President Bill Clinton, another politician who drew inspiration from the mighty South African, was in his New York City office when he got the word.
“Today the world has lost one of its most important leaders and one of its finest human beings,” Clinton said.
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Nelson Mandela and South African President Frederik de Klerk on the eve of accepting their joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. De Klerk freed Mandela from prison in 1990 and helped bring an end to apartheid.
In Times Square, tourists and commuters stopped in their tracks when word of Mandela’s passing appeared on the scrolling headlines on the ABC News building at 44th St. and Broadway.
“He moved a whole nation,” said Charles Gayle, 75, who lives on the Lower East Side. “He’s not only one of the greatest people of our time, he was one of the greatest of any time.
Up in Harlem, historian Billy Mitchell recalled when Mandela drove through his neighborhood during his triumphant visit to New York City in 1990.
“Brothers and sisters were chanting,” he said. “People were dressed up in Afro-centric clothes. I felt so African and one of African descent.”
Nelson Mandela, charged with treason, leaves court in Pretoria, South Africa in 1958. He would eventually serve 27 years in prison for opposing apartheid.
At City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg said, “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,” he said.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio said Mandela “met hatred with reason, intolerance with resolve.”
“For so many of us, the fight for a free South Africa became the rallying cry of our generation,” he said. “It brought us together, and inspired us to confront oppression abroad — and also here at home.”
A 1957 wedding photo of Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie.
The Rev. Al Sharpton also chimed in, saying the world “has lost one of history’s greatest citizens.”
“He changed human history and taught activists around the world that in order to legitimately further what is noble, you must actually be a noble person,” Sharpton said. “He showed us that you can change the course of human history without lowering yourself to human depravity.”
In a twist of fate, Prince William and Kate Middleton, along with Mandela’s daughter, Zindzi Mandela, were attending the premiere of the film about her dad’s life, “Long Walk to Freedom,” in London when they received word of his death.
Nelson Mandela as an anti-apartheid activist in 1950.
“It’s extremely sad and tragic news. We’re just reminded what an extraordinary and inspiring man Nelson Mandela was,” said William. “Our thoughts and prayers are with him, and with his family right now.”
Mandela served 27 years in prison for taking up arms against his country’s oppressive white government. But when he was freed, he embraced former captors and urged sworn enemies to forge a “rainbow” nation.
In so doing, Mandela became a global hero on par with his personal icons — Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi.
Mandela “made us realize, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colors,” said another icon, boxing great Muhammad Ali.Actor Morgan Freeman, who got to play Mandela in the movie “Invictus,” said, “Today the world lost one of the true giants of the past century.”
Born July 18, 1918, few would have predicted that Mandela would choose the path of peace as he stood accused with his African National Congress cohorts of trying to overthrow the government by force.
Sentenced to life in prison, Mandela was for 27 years reduced to a simple title: Inmate 46664. He served 18 of those years on Robben Island, where he contracted the tuberculosis that would dog him for the rest of his life.
A young mourner places flowers at the base of the Nelson Mandela statue at the South African Embassy in Washington.
Mandela’s letters to his second wife, Winnie, and their two daughters, made him the world’s most famous political prisoner.
“Free Nelson Mandela” became a global rallying cry as international pressure mounted on the South African government to release him and scrap its racist policies.
When Mandela was finally released Feb. 11, 1990, it was a monumental event just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” he said after emerging from custody. “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
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Nelson Mandela, with an infectious smile that become his signature, showed strength of heart can transcend the ages.
And with those words, the dismantling of apartheid was underway.
Mandela served just one term as president, retiring in 1999. His marriage to Winnie Mandela had fallen apart earlier and he found happiness with third wife Graca Machel, the widowed former first lady of neighboring Mozambique.
He is also survived by daughter Makaziwe from his first marriage, and daughters Zindzi and Zenani from his second.
Mandela continued to be a major moral voice on the world stage, but his body began to betray him.
His last years were marked by frequent hospitalizations as he struggled with nagging respiratory problems. In June, Mandela was hospitalized for the fourth time this year with an infection that had spread to his weakened lungs.
One of Mandela’s last public appearances was perhaps one of his most moving.
With Graca Machel by his side, a frail Mandela gave a brief wave at the closing ceremonies of the hugely successful 2010 World Cup soccer tournament in Johannesburg.
It was a sign of just how far South Africa had come — from the man who led his nation there.