JOHANNESBURG — They came by the hundreds, late into Friday night. They parked their cars blocks away and walked through the darkness, some carrying candles, some flowers. They were men, women and children, black, white and brown, Christians, Muslims and Jews, gays and lesbians, and they all walked until they converged in front of the house of the man mourned by the whole world.
They came to pay tribute and to thank him.
“My life would not be what it is if it wasn’t for having a leader such as Nelson Mandela,” said Angela Mhlanga, head of a financial division at a bank, who came to the house in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Houghton with her two children. “He chose peace over war. He created a legacy where our children, black, white or yellow, can live in harmony. I told my children that we wouldn’t have a country such as this one if it weren’t for him.”
The death of Mandela, 95, spurred the rarest of outpourings on Friday — nearly universal and unanimous — as South African President Jacob Zuma announced a national week of mourning before a state funeral is held Dec. 15. It was the start of a fitting farewell to the anti-apartheid icon, who rose from prisoner to president.
Flags across several continents fell to half-staff early Friday, and South Africans poured into the streets at daybreak to pay tribute to a liberator whose life spanned nearly a century and whose dignity and peacemaking served as a model across the world. Mandela’s face appeared on newspaper front pages from Berlin to Beirut, often with just a few somber words and the years of his life: 1918 to 2013.
In Soweto, the township near Johannesburg that was the scene of some of the worst apartheid-era strife, black and white South Africans joined hands in mourning. Crowds also congregated in a popular mall in Sandton, where a huge statue of Mandela stands in a square named after him. Mourners placed bouquets notes near the statue. South Africans also gathered in Pretoria, the seat of government, to remember him.
But it was outside Mandela’s house in Houghton, where he died with his family around him, that perhaps the most boisterous appreciation unfolded. Crowds waved South African flags and placards emblazoned with his portrait. They sang the national anthem and liberation songs. In one corner of the intersection, an expanse of candles, flowers and photographs mushroomed. It was part mourning, part celebration, a send-off unlike any this nation — perhaps any — has seen.
Many nonwhites who had gathered outside said they would never have been able to achieve much in South Africa if it hadn’t been for the struggle by Mandela and his comrades to bring down apartheid, the brutal system of racial segregation imposed by South Africa’s white regime.
“Even in his death, Nelson Mandela has brought us together again,” said Vinesh Maharaj, a 41-year-old engineer, looking at the crowds. “I wouldn’t have had the opportunity that I had if Nelson Mandela wasn’t around. I wouldn’t have gone to university. I wouldn’t have had the job opportunities. I wouldn’t be able to travel freely, as I do now. Nelson Mandela made a big difference in my life.”
Zuma said Friday that a memorial service will be held Tuesday at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg. Mandela’s body will lie in state in Pretoria from Wednesday through next Friday, and two days later he will be buried in Qunu, his rural birthplace. In Washington, the White House announced Friday that President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama would fly to South Africa next week “to pay their respects to the memory of Nelson Mandela and to participate in memorial events.”
Obama, who has ordered that U.S. flags be flown at half-staff until sunset Monday in Mandela’s memory, has long been expected to travel to South Africa to honor the man he has called an inspiration and a hero.
Though Mandela had been absent from public life for several years as he battled illness, his death spurred rich tributes from around the world. “The messages we have received since last night have heartened and overwhelmed us,” Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela said Friday, in the first statement from the family since the death, Agence France-Presse reported. “He is an embodiment of strength, struggle and survival, principles that are cherished by humanity,” he said.
The New York Stock Exchange observed a moment of silence for Mandela on Friday morning before its opening bell.
Some South Africans broke into tears describing Mandela’s importance in televised interviews.
“We collectively claim him as the father of our nation,” retired Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu, a close friend of Mandela’s and a fellow fighter against apartheid, told reporters in Cape Town. “What’s going to happen to us now that our father has died?”
Some analysts have worried for years about a splintering of South Africa in the wake of Mandela’s death, since the country is still riven with problems, including a youth unemployment rate near 50 percent and one of the world’s highest income disparities. The reality of multiracial democracy has proved harder and far less equal than many expected when it arrived in 1994, but Mandela always scoffed at the notion that his country would face special challenges after his death.
Among those who paid tribute to him Friday was Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote on Twitter that he was an “unconquerable soul.” Later, accepting a human rights award at a Capitol Hill ceremony, Clinton recalled first meeting Mandela in 1992 and visiting him several times over the years, including as secretary of state.
“I was always struck by the extraordinary depth of his self-knowledge, of his awareness about how hard it is to live a life of integrity, of service, but to combine within oneself the contradictions that he lived with — a lawyer and a freedom fighter, a prisoner and a leader, a man of anger and of forgiveness — has so captured the hearts of people not only in his country, but as we are seeing with the outpouring of response to his death, people around the world,” Clinton said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter of condolence to Zuma, saying China will remember Mandela’s devotion to “human progress.” By 10:22 p.m. Friday in Beijing, the number of comments related to Mandela reached 491,364 on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblogging Web site. The Indian government declared five days of state mourning. Both houses of the Indian Parliament adjourned for the day to honor a man who had embraced the principals of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and who once said he had “followed the [nonviolent] Gandhian strategy for as long as I could.”
As mourners left Mandela’s house Friday night, some expressed a sense of foreboding about a future without Mandela.
“I’m worried,” said Sharon Rosenberg, 52, a receptionist. “Will South Africa be the same? With him gone, will things change? I hope it won’t.”
“I hope our leaders take a lesson out of his book, to be as humble as him and carry on his work,” said her friend, Evelyn Debraine, 59.
Birnbaum reported from Berlin. William Branigin, Philip Rucker and DeNeen L. Brown in Washington, Simon Denyer in Beijing, Chico Harlan in Seoul and Annie Gowen in New Delhi contributed to this report.