In nearly seven decades spent fighting for freedom and equality, Nelson Mandela inspired and challenged the world to stand up for others. As word of Mandela’s death spread, current and former presidents, athletes and entertainers, and people around the world spoke about the life and legacy of the former South African leader.
From Harlem to Hollywood, Paris to Beijing, people hailed Mandela’s indomitable courage in the face of adversity as an inspiration for all. In a testament to his universal appeal, political leaders of various stripes joined critics and activists in paying tribute to Mandela as a heroic force for peace and reconciliation.
Some knew Mandela personally while many only knew him from afar, but they shared how they drew inspiration from his strength and looked to live his message of continuing the struggle against social injustice and for human rights.
“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.
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 Archbishop Desmond Tutu were part of Mandela’s group of statesmen known as The Elders.
“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,” Tutu said. “He inspired us to walk the path of forgiveness and reconciliation and so South Africa did not go up in flames.”
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, remained 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.”
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.
In Kiev, where Ukrainians have gathered for anti-government demonstrations around-the-clock for the past week, protesters took a moment to recall Mandela’s legacy.
“He had many troubles in his life. He was in prison, but he was waiting and he achieved what he wanted,” protester Alena Pivovar said. “We have the same situation now. We have some barriers, but we have to pass them.”
“Nelson Mandela set the standard for all revolutionaries past, present, and future: have a righteous cause, fight with dignity, and win with grace,” said actor and E Street band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who in 1985 recruited performers to record “Sun City,” an anti-apartheid album.
The United Nation’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay — a South African who was once a defense lawyer for anti-apartheid activists — said Mandela “was perhaps the greatest moral leader of our time.”
Pillay recalled how Mandela’s release from prison triggered a “thirst for revenge” among his supporters but that he emphasized forgiveness over vengeance. “He told us to throw our spears and guns into the sea,” Pillay said. “He showed us that a better future depended on reconciliation, not revenge.”