People light a candle for former president Nelson Mandela on hearing of his death outside his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013.
(Photo: Denis Farrell, AP)
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The nation was in mourning Thursday for Nelson Mandela, a towering figure here for his fight to end apartheid and reconcile his country to democratic rule.
Mandela, 95, died Thursday at his home in Johannesburg. He had been hospitalized four times since last December, most recently earlier this summer when he was re-admitted for a lung infection.
The news of his death, which locals had braced for since late last year, has left much of the country acting as if it no longer has a compass. He was seen as a national hero and the only figure who could successfully address the severe problems facing the country - crime, poverty, corruption and unemployment.
"Our nation has lost its greatest son," South African president Jacob Zuma said. "He is now resting. He is now at peace."
From national leaders to laborers, the nation stopped what it was doing yesterday and many said they were unsure how the country would go forward.
"We depend on him," said Maxwell Mlilo, 36, a gas-station attendant. "We appreciate everything he has done for us. We say thank you and let him go in peace."
Former leaders said that Mandela's role as a leader in the pursuit of freedom should not be forgotten.
"President Mandela . . . and his generation of freedom fighters walked their long walk and made enormous sacrifices which eventually led to our freedom in 1994," said the nation's former president, Thabo Mbeki. "His passing signals the end of an historic era represented by the heroic deeds of his generation.
Outside Mandela's house, hundreds of people gathered on the streets in silence.
"We just lost an icon," said Fatima Joosub, a neighbor of Mandela said, before falling silent again.
Across the nation, people were in a state of shock and sadness. President Jacob Zuma announced on national television at 11:40 Thursday evening that Tata, as Mandela was locally know, had passed.
Mandela became involved in political opposition as a young law student and joined the African National Congress in 1942. Two years later he founded the ANC's Youth League, known for civil disobedience and strikes in protest at the hundreds of laws associated with the new apartheid system of racial segregation.
Arrested in 1962 for inciting workers' strikes and leaving the country without permission, Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He had been particularly vulnerable to respiratory problems since contracting tuberculosis during his captivity.
South Africans say Mandela's role in helping his country cannot be exaggerated.
"Mandela played a crucial role in averting a racial war and preventing white flight," said Professor Daryl Glaser, head of political studies at the University of Witwatersrand. "Either of which on its own could have brought immediate economic collapse and quite possibly state failure."
Mandela is survived by three daughters, 18 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and three step-grandchildren as well as four step-children via marriage to Graca Machel.