Nelson Mandela, who led his country to democracy after serving 27 years in prison, has died aged 95.
President Zuma of South Africa said in a televised address: “The founding father of our nation has departed. May his soul rest in peace. God bless Africa.”
Mr Mandela, the anti-apartheid icon who became his country’s first black president, died peacefully in his home with his family at his bedside. He had been suffering from a recurrent lung infection and had been in and out of hospital for much of the past year.
President Obama said that Mr Mandela had achieved more than could be expected of any man, adding: “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”
David Cameron said: “A great light has gone out.” The flag at No 10 will be flown at half mast. “Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time,” he tweeted.
Born into a country where blacks were treated as second-class citizens, Mr Mandela dedicated his life to equality, becoming the country’s first democratically elected president in 1994, four years after walking to freedom.
Although his death did not come as a surprise — he had been hospitalised four times since last December and friends had warned that the end was near — it marked the end of an historic era that saw South Africa narrowly avoid a civil war on its tumultuous path towards democracy.
Mr Mandela will be honoured with a full state funeral that is expected to attract dozens of world leaders. President Zuma ordered the national flag to be lowered to half mast. Many South Africans, who love Mr Mandela like a father, said that their grief was tinged with uncertainty over what their future holds without him.
South Africa’s last white president bowed his head to the man with whom he buried apartheid more than two decades ago.
Nelson Mandela was “a “humane and compassionate” man who understood the fears of the country’s white minority, F W de Klerk said.
“He was a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard beyond everything else he did. This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy.”
Mr de Klerk, who released Mr Mandela from prison in 1990, shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his former adversary in 1993.
The first sign that Nelson Mandela’s life was finally ebbing came yesterday evening. Graca Machel, his third wife, let it be known that the extended family was gathering at the house where he had been cared for in intensive care conditions since being allowed to leave hospital earlier this year.
Only the day before his eldest daughter had uttered a word that during the months in which South Africans were braced for his passing had never been said. The first black President of South Africa was, she said, on his deathbed.
Two of Mr Mandela’s granddaughters and a close family friend Bantu Holomisa were among those seen entering the house, which was surrounded by more than a dozen cars carrying visitors and military personnel.
Swati Dlamini and Mbuso Mandela, two of his grandchildren, were joined at 11pm by a large police contingent, who blocked the road to the former president’s house. They cordoned off an area around the house with police tape and cones, fuelling speculation either that Mr Mandela had died or that the current president, Jacob Zuma, was about to arrive.
A priest was also seen to leave Mr Mandela’s home in Houghton, a leafy Johannesburg suburb, as local wellwishers and the media kept watch outside it through the night.
Born into a country where blacks were treated like second-class citizens, Mr Mandela dedicated his life to equality, becoming the country’s first democratically elected president in 1994.
Jailed for resisting the white supremacist government, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became a symbol of his country’s struggle against injustice. His face and his name were printed on posters and T-shirts around the world.
Yet his greatest achievement, and the one that elevated him above the realms of ordinary politics, was his humble message of forgiveness.
Despite the decades of abuse by the apartheid government that murdered and tortured its opponents, and defended its right to segregate people according to the colour of their skin, Mr Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 with a message of reconciliation.
He led the African National Congress (ANC) to power in 1994, and served one five-year term.
Instead of avenging the crimes of the apartheid regime, the former boxer and keen gardener established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, under the stewardship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which adopted a policy of confession, forgiveness and resolution that helped to move South Africa away from institutionalised racial repression towards the egalitarian democracy of today.
He spent most of his time in prison on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, and has outlived many of his fellow inmates, including the ANC Secretary General Walter Sisulu.
Although Mr Mandela had hardly been seen in public since 2010 when South Africa hosted the football World Cup, footage released last month showed a frail and confused old man with President Zuma at his side.
Friends said his mind stayed sharp until a few months ago. He would often read Afrikaans language newspapers to keep up with current affairs, although he stepped down from public life in 2004, to spend more time with his family.
It is thought that he will be buried in village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, in a modest family plot, close to the home he shared with his mother until he was sent away to school.
This article was co-written with Jerome Starkey and was published in The Times on December 6 2013