‘He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages’

Many past and present heads of state expected to attend state funeral


Nelson Mandela, one of the towering political figures of the last century – and perhaps the most loved – has died at the age of 95.

South Africa’s first black president helped to unite his homeland and avert the threat of civil war as apartheid collapsed under the combined weight of internal uprising and international sanctions.

He spent 27 years in jail for opposing the white-only regime, 18 of them in the brutal location of Robben Island. Through the 1980s in particular, his name became a rallying cry not only against apartheid but the Cold War realpolitik of the United States and Britain.

Among the first to pay tribute was US president Barack Obama who said: “Today he’s gone home, and we’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.”

Referring to him affectionately by his clan name “Madiba”, by which he is best known in his homeland, Mr Obama said: “He achieved more than could be expected of any man. He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages”.

Died peacefully
Mr Mandela died at his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton at about 8.50pm (6.50pm Irish time) yesterday, South African president Jacob Zuma said in a televised address to the nation. “He passed on peacefully in the company of his family . . . our nation has lost its greatest son,” said Mr Zuma.

A founder of both youth and military wings of the African National Congress, he famously declared at the 1964 Rivonia treason trial that a democratic and free society was “an ideal for which I hope to live for and achieve, but – if needs be – it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

While spared the death penalty, he spent more than 10,000 days in jail where he managed to orchestrate party strategy as well as becoming a tangible example of the liberation movement’s resilience. On February 11th, 1990, nine days after then president FW de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, Mr Mandela was freed from prison. Then aged 71, he walked from the gates holding the hand of his wife Winnie and held up his fist in an ANC salute.

One of his first overseas trips after his release was to Dublin in July 1990 where he accepted the freedom of the city, which had been awarded while he was still in prison. It was just one of many honours he would receive, culminating in the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize which he shared with Mr de Klerk.

On April 27th, 1994, Mr Mandela voted for the first time in his life and the ANC swept to power. He was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president the following month, preaching a message of peace and reconciliation.

Mr Mandela served only one term as president, and subsequently withdrew from political life. He continued to work with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund which he set up in 1995. He also established the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Mandela-Rhodes Foundation.

Mr Mandela was admitted to hospital with a lung infection on July 8th last and as his condition deteriorated he was put on an assisted breathing life support machine. There were almost daily reports about his health in South Africa where he is revered with almost religious fervour.

While some commentators believe his death may lead to instability in the country, many political and civil society groups have argued it is as likely to be a unifying factor. Contingency plans are already in place for an extended period of national mourning before Mr Mandela is finally laid to rest in Eastern Cape.

State funeral
He is to receive a state funeral and flags will be at half mast until after it takes place.

Mr Mandela is survived by his wife Graça Machel, who he married in 1998 after divorcing Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and also by three daughters Makaziwe, Zenani and Zindzi, some 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

His relationship with his family has been strained at times, something he blames in part on his isolation in prison. Recently, there have been disputes over access to his legacy and image rights.

His funeral is expected to attract many past and present heads of state.