Johannesburg - Nelson Mandela worked his magic once more on Friday, uniting friends and foes alike in a global outpouring of grief as they mourned the death of the anti-apartheid icon.
Palestinians and Israelis, Beijing and the Dalai Lama, Washington and Tehran all joined together to remember a man whose message of equality inspired millions across the globe.
Foreshadowing the guest list of what will surely be the most important funeral of recent decades, foreign dignitaries as well as celebrities, sports figures and religious leaders queued to issue solemn tributes to the 95-year-old peace hero who became South Africa's first democratic president.
“He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages,” Barack Obama, America's first black president, said in a deliberate echo of an early tribute paid to Abraham Lincoln, the president who emancipated the slaves.
In a rare homage, flags flew at half mast in several countries, including the US, France, Britain, Nigeria and India, which declared five days of national mourning for the man hailed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as a “true Gandhian”.
“In a world marked by division, his was an example of working for reconciliation and harmony and we are not likely to see another of his kind for a long time to come,” Singh said.
Over and over, leaders returned to the dignity Mandela displayed during his 27 years of imprisonment by South Africa's former racist regime and then later, when he led his country to majority rule.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon declared Mandela a “giant for justice”.
“Many around the world were influenced by his selfless struggle for human dignity, equality and freedom. He touched our lives in deeply personal ways,” he said.
Britain's Prince William gave what is believed to be the first unscripted reaction by a major royal to a key news event when he said “his thoughts and prayers are with” Mandela and his family.
He was told of Mandela's death while attending the London premiere of the film Long Walk To Freedom based on the icon's autobiography.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who in 2006 apologised for what he said were the “mistakes” of his Conservative Party in its response to apartheid in Britain's former colony, said: “A great light has gone out in the world”.
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan dubbed him “one of mankind's greatest liberators” and declared three days of national mourning, while Guinea's Alpha Conde described Mandela as “the pride and honour of Africa”.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised the former statesman as “one of the greatest politicians in modern times” and China's President Xi Jinping honoured his “historic contribution” to South Africa and the world.
Israel's leaders called him a champion of peace despite his tireless advocacy of the Palestinian cause.
Retired political figures who remembered Mandela during his imprisonment or worked with him after his 1990 release were also effusive.
Former US president Bill Clinton said “the world has lost one of its most important leaders and one of its finest human beings” while ex-French president Jacques Chirac said “a great light has gone out”.
Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, shared with South Africa's last apartheid leader FW de Klerk for their role in ensuring a peaceful transition to elected rule.
De Klerk said though his relationship with Mandela was “often stormy,” they were “always able to come together at critical moments.”
“I believe that his example will live on and that it will continue to inspire all South Africans to achieve his vision of non-racialism, justice, human dignity, and equality for all,” he added.
Another Nobel laureate paying tribute was Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who like Mandela spent many years in detention. She lamented the passing of a “great human being who... made us understand that we can change the world”.
The Dalai Lama said “the best tribute we can pay to him is to do whatever we can to contribute to honouring the oneness of humanity and working for peace and reconciliation as he did.”
The Norwegian Nobel committee called Mandela “one of the greatest names in the long history of the Nobel Peace Prize”.
Business and religious leaders, the heads of international agencies, writers, thinkers, entertainers, sports personalities and activists also joined the outpouring of emotion.
Pope Francis paid tribute to Mandela for “forging a new South Africa” and said he hoped his example would inspire the nation to strive for “justice and the common good”.
Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban to champion girls' rights to education, called him “my leader” who “is a perpetual inspiration for me and millions of others around the world”.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has turned over his business acumen and part of his fortune to battling disease in Africa, said: “His grace and courage changed the world.”
U2 frontman Bono, who in 2003 organised an Aids charity concert in honour of Mandela and which was attended by the icon himself, said he “showed us how to love rather than hate, not because he had never surrendered to rage or violence, but because he learnt that love would do a better job”.
Brazilian football legend Pele declared Mandela “a hero to me. He was a friend and a companion in the popular fight and the fight for world peace”.
But for all the sentiment around the world, the emotion was strongest in South Africa itself, where the celebration of the life of the nation's greatest leader was tempered by concern to preserve his legacy.
“Over the past 24 years Madiba taught us how to come together and to believe in ourselves and each other. He was a unifier from the moment he walked out of prison,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu. - AFP