- Views & Opinions
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
In Haiti, a Caribbean nation that became the world’s first black republic in 1804 through a successful slave revolt, Mandela symbolized the struggle for black equality.
“Mandela is not only the father of democracy in South Africa, but is also a symbol of democracy,” said Haitian President Michel Martelly. “And like any symbol, he is not dead. He is present in all of us and guides us by his lifestyle, his courage and faith in the true struggle for equality.”
“Mandela’s message will not disappear. It will continue to inspire those fighting for freedom and to give confidence to people defending just causes and universal rights,” said French President Francois Hollande, who is hosting dozens of African leaders this week for a summit on peace and security.
In New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, artist Franco Gaskin, 85, stood before a mural featuring Mandela he had painted on a storefront gate almost 20 years ago. He remembered a Mandela visit there in 1990. “It was dynamic, everyone was so electrified to see him in Harlem,” Gaskin said. “I idolized him so much. He leaves a legacy that all of us should follow.”
In Washington, D.C., Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign said, “Nelson Mandela tore down oppression, united a rainbow nation, and always walked arm-in-arm with his LGBT brothers and sisters — and with all people— toward freedom. Though every man, woman and child who seeks justice around the world mourns this loss, his vision of an equal future lives on undimmed.”
At the ACLU, executive director Anthony D. Romero said, “Mandela fought against class and racial inequality, political corruption and the devastation of AIDS. He fought for everything we Americans hold dear. ‘We have waited too long for our freedom,’ he famously said. And his actions matched his words as he endured 27 years in prison for what he believed—that we are all equal regardless of our class or the color of our skin. Although it seems unthinkable to imagine a world without Nelson Mandela, we must. Our dedication to protecting freedoms for everyone—no matter what their race, gender, religion or whom they choose to love–is the precious legacy he has passed on to us.”
Myanmar pro-democracy leader and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi paid tribute to Mandela as a “great human being who raised the standard of humanity.”
“I would like to express my extreme grief at the passing away of the man who stood for human rights and for equality in this world,” she said. “He also made us understand that we can change the world.”
India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh compared Mandela to his country’s own icon for the struggle for freedom, independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi.
“A giant among men has passed away. This is as much India’s loss as South Africa’s. He was a true Gandhian. His life and work will remain a source of eternal inspiration for generations to come.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott described Mandela as one of the great figures of the 20th century who had healed a broken country.
“He spent much of his life standing against the injustice of apartheid. When that fight was won, he inspired us again by his capacity to forgive and reconcile his country,” Abbott said.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said Mandela was a “builder of bridges of peace and dialogue” who changed the course of history, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised his moral leadership.
“He was never haughty,” Netanyahu said. “He worked to heal rifts within South African society and succeeded in preventing outbreaks of racial hatred.”
At the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., on display is a photograph of the U.S. boxing great with Mandela, their hands clenched into fists as if they’re boxing.
“He made us realize, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colors,” Ali said. “He was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge.”
Mandela was mourned in Cuba, which has long felt a close bond with the late South African leader. Havana considered him a hero for supporting it amid U.S. and international criticism.
“Exceptional human being, example for the world, Father of multiracial South Africa, the endearing friend of Fidel and Cuba,” journalist Juana Carrasco said via Twitter. “Long live Mandela!”