JOHANNESBURG - As the news of Nelson Mandela's death spread across South Africa, residents of Soweto gathered in the streets near the house where he once lived, singing and dancing to mourn his death and celebrate his colossal life.
The people of South Africa reacted today with deep sadness at the loss of a man considered by many to be the father of the nation, while mourners said it was also a time to celebrate the achievements of the anti-apartheid leader who emerged from prison to become South Africa's first black president.
President Jacob Zuma, dressed in black, announced the news of Mandela's death Thursday night on television, saying the 95-year-old known affectionately by his clan name "Madiba" had died "peacefully" at around 8:50 p.m. while in the company of his family.
"He is now resting. He is now at peace," Zuma said. "Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father."
The president said all national flags would be lowered to half-mast from Friday until after a state funeral.
Some people gathered with candles as media swarmed outside the Johannesburg home where Mandela had been receiving medical care in past months. About 40 people celebrated Mandela's life by dancing and singing outside his former home on Vilakazi Street in the Soweto area of Johannesburg.
"I'm disappointed. I'm sad," said Thumelo Madikwe, a 29-year-old accountant. "But at the same time, he had his part in life and he did it very well. It's fine that he goes. He was old."
Big gatherings of mourners were expected in coming days as the country prepares a formal farewell for a man who helped guide the country from racial conflict to all-race elections in 1994.
"He transcended race and class in his personal actions, through his warmth and through his willingness to listen and to emphasize with others," retired archbishop Desmond Tutu said in a statement. "He taught us that to respect those with whom we are politically or socially or culturally at odds is not a sign of weakness, but a mark of self-respect."
F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last apartheid-era president, said he and Mandela first met each other in 1989 and concluded they could do business with each other as the country embarked on its long-awaited transition to democratic rule.
"Although we were political opponents - and although our relationship was often stormy - we were always able to come together at critical moments to resolve the many crises that arose during the negotiation process," de Klerk said in a statement.
Human rights advocate George Bizos told eNCA television that Mandela, a longtime friend, never wavered in his dedication to non-racial and democratic ideals.
"He was larger than life," Bizos said. "We will not find another like him."
At Nelson Mandela Square in the upscale Sandton neighborhood of Johannesburg, six people stood at the foot of a six-yard (meter) bronze statue of Mandela, paying homage to the leader. The six were two whites, two blacks and two of Indian descent, and represented South Africa's "rainbow nation" that Mandela had fought and sacrificed for.
"For 23 years, I walked a path with this man since he was released," said Sonja Pocock, a white 46-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative. "I'm from the old regime. He's like my grandfather. He is my grandfather."
The blonde sales executive burst into tears.
Krezaan Schoeman, a 38-year-old Afrikaner colleague of Pocock's, spoke as her friend went to arrange some red flowers she had laid at the statue's feet. It was past midnight and the square, ringed by restaurants with Christmas lights arrayed on fake trees casting a silvery glow, was mostly empty.
"I admired him. He stood for something, for freedom and equality," Schoeman said. "Even if some say he was a terrorist, he stood for his beliefs. Everybody's got a right to life. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, black or white. That's what he stood for. And for forgiveness."
Standing nearby with a friend, Valentino More, a black 24-year-old student, said he had heard of Mandela's death on Twitter, then had rushed home to see Zuma make the announcement. He then came to Mandela Square, needing to pay tribute.
"It came as a shock," More said. "It's a big day, actually, because our father just passed."