South Africans sang, world leaders openly grieved and
cyberspace erupted with Nelson Mandela tributes in a collage of languages Thursday as word spread that a man likened to a living saint had died.

The passing of Mandela, 95 and long ill, was at once thoroughly foretold and unexpectedly jarring, as people recalled his graceful leadership through what appeared to be an intractable racial crisis in South Africa and his ability to embody hope for moral progress in a beleaguered and often-unjust world.

“I was driving to pick up my boys from school. I pulled over,” said Dijon Anderson, 41, a teacher who lives in Bowie, Md. “It’s monumental. He led an incredible life. He died at 95. That is a long life. But it still hurts.”

Anderson, who recalled Mandela’s visit to Howard University in the 1990s, joined other mourners who gathered in the deepening darkness outside the South African Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, where a statue of Mandela stood beyond a padlocked fence, his right fist raised. Mourners tried to squeeze through to place flowers near the statue, and lights from television cameras cast his shadow on the embassy building.

Roxanne Little, an ultrasound technician who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., pushed her way through the crowd. Reporters gathered there tried to stop her for an interview, but she said nothing as she knelt by the fence. “First,” Little said, “let me pay my respects to this great man.”

The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan talks about the life and legacy of South Africa’s first black President Nelson Mandela. (Thomas LeGro/The Washington Post)

The man himself — president, Nobel laureate, inspiration to oppressed people worldwide — was always more complex than his super-heroic public image, as embodied in statues erected in so many capitals. He was long regarded as a terrorist by South Africa’s government and its allies, and he openly embraced armed resistance as a revolutionary necessity before spending 27 years in prison.

But the Mandela remembered Thursday was more the leader who walked free in 1990, forgave his captors and peacefully navigated his nation through what most observers — inside and outside South Africa — expected would be a civil war. The reality of multiracial democracy has proved harder and far less equal than many expected when it arrived in 1994, but love for Mandela has never dimmed.

President Obama, who like Mandela was his country’s first black president, said, “Today he’s gone home, and we’ve 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.”

About 8:50 p.m., two men dressed in military uniforms walked out and lowered the flag at the South African Embassy. Peace Nganwa, a student from South Africa, led the crowd in the singing of the South African anthem.

“This is Madiba,” she explained. “It is Mandela.”

The crowd chanted, “Amandla,” meaning power. And answered, “Awethu,” meaning, “Belongs to us.”

Mandela’s death comes amid reminders of his many sacrifices, depicted in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a biopic based on his best-selling autobiography. Britain’s Prince William was attending the London premiere of the movie as the news spread across the world. “We were just reminded of what an extraordinary and inspiring man Nelson Mandela was,” the tuxedo-clad prince said.

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), issuing one of the countless statements prepared by politicians during Mandela’s months of declining health, said, “President Mandela’s life is the closest thing we have to proof of God.”

Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille, the first African American to hold that position, said, “Wow. . . . Despite the fact that we knew it was going to happen at some point in time because of his health issues, it’s a real loss to his family, his country and the world at large.”

In South Africa, where Mandela was affectionately known by his traditional clan name Madiba, the mood was more celebratory than somber after President Jacob Zuma announced the death on national television. Crowds thronged the streets outside Mandela’s former home in Soweto, the sprawling township outside Johannesburg that was the scene of some of the worst violence during the apartheid struggle but that has grown into an increasingly middle-class bedroom community.

Longtime newscaster Mathatha Tsedu said on a national news channel, “This is a man who had no unfulfilled missions.”

In the United States, activists on both sides of the mass apartheid protests of the 1980s paid homage to the movement’s symbol of resistance. At a time when campus sit-ins rocked to the anthem “Free Nelson Mandela,” then-State Department official Chester Crocker was pushing President Ronald Reagan's “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s white minority as an alternative to cutting financial ties. On Thursday, he remembered Mandela as “tough as nails, highly principled and committed to reconciliation.”

“I’ve respected him for many, many years,” said Crocker, who recalled receiving a phone call from Mandela during a later visit to South Africa. Mandela wanted a copy of Crocker’s book and asked him to deliver it personally. “This was a person with an enormous, really winning human touch. He understood that he had the special capacity to help the last generation of [white] leaders to escape the political and mental prison they were trapped in.”

At Howard University, once the site of intense anti-apartheid activism, student Thelma Mubaiwa, 21, visited a new exhibit about Mandela in the Founders Library after hearing of his death.

The exhibit became a gathering spot Thursday for two types of people on the campus: those for whom Mandela was a mythical and elusive figure, and those who fondly remembered the university’s former anti-apartheid fervor. All came to the first floor of this historic library on a hill to pay their respects.

“I knew this was going to happen, but still it impacted me,’’ said Mubaiwa, a political science major. “I wasn’t neglecting this exhibit, but I had been meaning to go. The death made it more important for me. It really made my friends have discussions about how ungrateful we are to these leaders who fought for freedom, and we don’t even think about them.”

Professor Mbye Cham was headed to lead an evening class when he got the news, leaving him briefly befuddled with emotion. “For 10 minutes, I couldn’t do anything,” said Cham, chairman of Howard’s African Studies Department. “I remember when he came to the convention center. I stood in line for five or six hours. And it was almost a magical experience.”

That day, he bought two Mandela T-shirts from street vendors: one to wear and one for posterity. The one he wore is long gone, but after class Thursday, he vowed to bring out the other to wear in honor of his hero.

Another potent vignette came from James M. Kilby, 71, who as a teenager in 1958 was among 20 black students who walked past hecklers and into Warren County High School in Front Royal, Va. His father, a farmer and janitor with a sixth-grade education, had filed a lawsuit that forced the school to admit blacks. Kilby has echoed his father’s activism in quieter ways, including in a 1986 letter he sent to South African President P.W. Botha, berating him for the country’s apartheid policies and asking him to imagine what his life would be like if his skin were black.

When Kilby heard Thursday of Mandela’s death, he couldn’t help thinking of his father. “I love my father and my father was brave, and I would consider Nelson Mandela another brave man,” he said.

Recalling the difficulty of the segregation battle, he said his family members harbored no bitterness, even though they became targets of vandalism and threats. “And when Nelson Mandela got out of prison he wasn’t bitter, and he really proved that through his reconciliation with those that punished him and those that tried to hurt him. . . . He was just an exceptional human being.”

Steve Hendrix, Robert Samuels, Tara Bahrampour, Mark Berman, Patricia Sullivan, Gilliam Brockell and Nikki Kahn in Washington and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.

Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.