Former South African President Nelson Mandela has died at age 95.

Mandela's friend and fellow Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu said: "Nelson Mandela embodied and reflected our collective greatness. He embodied our hopes and our dreams. He symbolised our enormous potential."

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Nelson Mandela's most memorable quotes

A party outside Mandela's home

Hundreds of people rushed to Nelson Mandela's Johannesburg home upon hearing of his death, breaking into song and dance in a joyful impromptu vigil celebrating their hero.


More than 500 people had gathered in the middle of the night in the well-heeled suburb of Houghton, with its high walls and jacaranda-lined avenues, singing anti-apartheid songs.

In a mood of reflection and celebration of Mandela's amazing life, people waved flags, shouted "Viva Mandela!" and "Long live Madiba!"

On a cool summer's night, several people were seen waving the flag of South Africa, while others were shown dancing and laughing. One woman held a candle. Others laid floral tributes.

Cars lined the streets, stretching three blocks away from the house. More and people, some clad in ANC colours, were still arriving in the early hours of the morning after hearing the news. Some had even rushed to the house in their pyjamas.

One of those outside the house, Ashleigh Williams, said she had the news on television and felt compelled to rush to the former president's home.

Some had flocked from as far away as Soweto, the iconic township south of Johannesburg, where Mandela once lived.

"I knew this day would come, but what can I say our beloved Madiba fought a good fight, now it's time to rest," Williams said.

"My heart is full of joy and sadness at the same time. He left a great legacy. I don't think anyone will ever be able to fill his shoes."

The crowd was diverse in terms of race and age. Teenager Asthyn Ariel, born in 1994, called Mandela an "icon".

"I think it's the moment where South Africa will really shine as a nation throughout the world. I think we are ready to show that thanks to Madiba we have changed for the better. We are a united rainbow nation."

TV images showed residents of the neighbourhood walking arm-in-arm through surrounding streets before heading towards Mandela's home.

A local gardener, Reginald Mokoena, said: "I was there when he walked out of prison, I'm here now, it's all so unreal. Our hero is gone."

He added: "The old man is gone, but this is no time for tears."

Others though could not contain themselves.

"It's a sad day for South Africa that's all I can think of," said a weeping Faiza Mohamed.

Mandela's daughters ask that film go on

As the world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela, remembers the life of the anti-apartheid campaigner and the first black President of South Africa. He was imprisoned for 27 years, controversial for much of his life, he received international acclaim for his anti-colonial and anti-apartheid stance. He was held in deep respect within South Africa, and has been described as "the father of the nation".

People attending the London premiere of a new film about Nelson Mandela were told of his death as the closing credits rolled.

The news broke during the premiere. Stopping the screening of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom was discussed, but Mandela's daughters asked that the film continue, a spokesman with the production said.

His two youngest daughters, who were at the premiere, were told of their father's death during the screening "and immediately left the cinema," a statement from the Nelson Mandela Foundation said.

The film's producer, Anant Singh, announced Mandela's death once the film was over, and he called for a moment of silence.

The audience included the film's stars and Prince William and his wife, Kate.

"It was extremely sad and tragic news," William said upon leaving.

When asked on the red carpet on her way into the premiere about her father, Zindzi Mandela had said, "My father is fine. ... He's just a typical 95-year-old who is frail."

Actor Idris Elba, who plays Mandela in the film, later said in a statement: "I am stunned at this very moment, in mourning with the rest of the world and Madiba's family. We have lost one of the greatest human beings to have walked this earth; I only feel honored to be associated with him."

Many South Africans called Mandela by his clan name, Madiba, which means "reconciler," as a token of affection and respect.

Tributes flow for 'global legend'

The world's leaders are among a chorus of voices paying tribute to Mandela.

Read our full collection of tributes here

Prime Minister John Key expressed his sadness at Mandela's death, saying he was "an inspirational leader, and a remarkable man".

"On behalf of the New Zealand people and the Government, I would like to express my sincere condolences to both his family and all South Africans," he said.

"Mr Mandela was a force for change, not only in South Africa, but around the world."

A delegation headed by Mr Key would represent New Zealand at his funeral.

United States President Barack Obama said the world was unlikely to see someone like Mandela again, so it was up to us to strive for a future worthy of him.

Mr Obama quoted Mandela's words during his trial in 1964, that he had fought against white domination and he had fought against black domination.

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Mr Obama said Mandela lived for that ideal and made it real.

"He achieved more than could be expected of any man. And today he has gone home, and we've lost one of the most influential, courageous and good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth."

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said Mandela would continue to inspire those who fought injustice.

"Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary man who represented for many around the world the ideals of freedom, peace, and justice," she said.

"Like many of my generation, I was inspired by Nelson Mandela's vision for a democratic South Africa."

Governor-General Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae said his death marked the passing of "a global legend" and a man whose example moved the world.

It was a time of great sadness for the people of South Africa, who mourned the loss of the man often described as their 'father of the nation'.

"However, in every country the world over, many will sense that a bright light has been extinguished; that we have lost a statesman who showed that patience, humility and forgiveness could work miracles and could overcome the forces of dogma, inertia and violence."

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Mandela "a giant for justice and a down-to-earth human inspiration".

"Let us continue each day to be inspired by Nelson Mandela's life-long example of working for a better and more just world."

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South Africans mourn, celebrate Mandela

South Africans living in New Zealand are mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela and looking to the future in their homeland with some trepidation with the passing of a man who brought the country together.

South African High Commissioner Zodwa Lallie said Mandela's death had still come as a blow even though it was expected.

"He has really walked as a colossus across not only South Africa, but Africa and the world. So even through our sadness, through our loss, through our mourning, we also take time to celebrate and take strength and pride in having been so blessed as to have one as him as our president and as our leader."

Mandela's famous quote about fighting both white and black domination was embodied in South Africa's Freedom Charter, which said the nation belonged to all who lived in it.

"For us that really will be the legacy," Ms Lallie said.

"Whether he is with us or is not with us, South Africa goes on as a united democratic country where all South Africans feel they are at home."

She said spirits were low at the High Commission.

"We've been dreading it, but now that it is has come, it is quite a blow, even though we knew he wouldn't live forever," Ms Lallie said.

"We are bereft, we are sad, but also we are celebrating the life of a great man."

The High Commission was yet to receive official instruction from Pretoria on how the death will be marked but planning would get under way for a memorial service in Wellington.

Ms Lallie said condolence books would also be made available in Auckland and Wellington from Monday.

South Africans living in New Zealand spoke about the peace Mandela brought to their country, and their concern that extreme political groups may unhinge the good work that has been done.

Auckland recruiter Andrew Brownlee once tutored Mandela's grandson at a tertiary college he ran in South Africa.

Mandela had kept South Africa peaceful and there was now trepidation as to whether that "sense of calmness" would remain, Mr Brownlee said.

"There's still a lot of tension in the country, but it seems a little calmer - the country has a long way to go, but it's come a long way."

Cathy Mellett, who runs the website, said the news of Mandela's death gave her "goosebumps".

"It's absolutely a tragedy. I think he almost was, in terms of the South African environment, the Mahatma Gandhi of today. He really brought that country together."

Ms Mellett's husband Ian said there had been conjecture that once Mandela died, some of the more "radical" elements in the country could use it as an opportunity to spouse their views.

"And then there are others who hope the legacy that he's left behind, in terms of that conciliatory, more peaceful approach to democratic change, that that legacy would live on."

Sheralee Clarke worked as a press photographer in Durban for 29 years and covered many key moments in Mandela's life, including his release from prison. "We all just loved him," she said.

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's peacemaker

Nelson Mandela was a master of forgiveness. South Africa's first black president spent nearly one-third of his life as a prisoner of apartheid, the system of white racist rule that he described as evil, yet he sought to win over its defeated guardians in a relatively peaceful transition of power that inspired the world.

As head of state, the ex-boxer, lawyer and inmate lunched with the prosecutor who argued successfully for his incarceration, sang the apartheid-era Afrikaans anthem at his inauguration and travelled hundreds of miles to have tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister at the time he was sent to prison who was also the architect of white rule.

It was this generosity of spirit that made Mandela, a global symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation in a world often jarred by conflict and division.

Mandela's stature as a fighter against white racist rule and seeker of peace with his enemies was on a par with that of other men he admired: American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, both of whom were assassinated while actively engaged in their callings.

Mandela's death deprived the world of one of one of the great figures of modern history and set the stage for days of mourning and reflection about a colossus of the 20th century who projected astonishing grace, resolve and good humour.

Dressed in black, South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement on television. He said Mandela died "peacefully" while with his family at around 8:50pm.

"We've lost our greatest son. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father," Zuma said. "Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss."

At times, Mandela embraced his iconic status, appearing before a rapturous crowd in London's Wembley Stadium soon after his 1990 release from jail. Sometimes, he sought to downplay it, uneasy about the perils of being put on a pedestal. In an unpublished manuscript, written while in prison, Mandela acknowledged that leaders of the anti-apartheid movement dominated the spotlight but said they were "only part of the story," and every activist was "like a brick which makes up our organisation."

He pondered the cost to his family of his dedication to the fight against the racist system of government that jailed him for 27 years and refused him permission to attend the funeral of his mother and of a son who was killed in a car crash. In court, he described himself as "the loneliest man" during his mid-1990s divorce from Winnie Mandela. As president, he could not forge lasting solutions to poverty, unemployment and other social ills that still plague today's South Africa, which has struggled to live up to its rosy depiction as the "Rainbow Nation".

He secured near-mythical status in his country and beyond. Last year, the South African central bank released new banknotes showing his face, a robust, smiling image of a man who was meticulous about his appearance and routinely exercised while in prison. South Africa erected statues of him and named buildings and other places after him. He shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with F. W. de Klerk, the country's last white president. He was the subject of books, films and songs and a magnet for celebrities.

In 2010, Mandela waved to the crowd at the Soccer City stadium at the closing ceremony of the World Cup, whose staging in South Africa allowed the country, and the continent, to shine internationally. It was the last public appearance for the former president and prisoner, who smiled broadly and was bundled up against the cold.

One of the most memorable of his gestures toward racial harmony was the day in 1995 when he strode onto the field before the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg, and then again after the game, when he congratulated the home team for its victory over a tough New Zealand team.

Mandela was wearing South African colours and the overwhelmingly white crowd of 63,000 was on its feet, chanting "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!"

It was typical of Mandela to march headlong into a bastion of white Afrikanerdom - in this case the temple of South African rugby - and make its followers feel they belonged in the new South Africa.

The moment was portrayed in Invictus, Clint Eastwood's movie telling the story of South Africa's transformation through the prism of sport.

It was a moment half a century in the making. In the 1950s, Mandela sought universal rights through peaceful means but was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for leading a campaign of sabotage against the government. The speech he gave during that trial outlined his vision and resolve.

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people," Mandela said. "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Cuban leader Fidel Castro, left, shares a laugh with South Africa President Nelson Mandela. Photo /AP
Cuban leader Fidel Castro, left, shares a laugh with South Africa President Nelson Mandela. Photo /AP

He was confined to the harsh Robben Island prison near Cape Town for most of his time behind bars, then moved to jails on the mainland. It was forbidden to quote him or publish his photo, yet he and other jailed members of his banned African National Congress were able to smuggle out messages of guidance to the anti-apartheid movement, and in the final stages of his confinement, he negotiated secretly with the apartheid leaders who recognized change was inevitable.

Thousands died, or were tortured or imprisoned in the decades-long struggle against apartheid, which deprived the black majority of the vote, the right to choose where to live and travel, and other basic freedoms.

So when inmate No. 46664 went free after 27 years, walking hand-in-hand with his wife Winnie out of a prison on the South African mainland, people worldwide rejoiced. Mandela raised his right fist in triumph, and in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he would write: "As I finally walked through those gates ... I felt - even at the age of seventy-one - that my life was beginning anew."

Mandela's release, rivalled the fall of the Berlin Wall just a few months earlier as a symbol of humanity's yearning for freedom, and his greying hair, raspy voice and colourful shirts made him a globally known figure.

Life, however, imposed new challenges on Mandela.

South Africa's white rulers had portrayed him as the spearhead of a communist revolution and insisted that black majority rule would usher in bloody chaos. Thousands died in factional fighting in the run-up to democratic elections in 1994, and Mandela accused the government of collusion in the bloodshed. But voting day, when long lines of voters waited patiently to cast ballots, passed peacefully, as did Mandela's inauguration as president

"Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world," the new president said. "Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa! Thank you."

Mandela also stood hand on heart, saluted by white generals as he sang along to two anthems now one: the apartheid-era Afrikaans "Die Stem," ("The Voice") and the African "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("Lord Bless Africa").

Since apartheid ended, South Africa has held four parliamentary elections and elected three presidents, always peacefully, setting an example on a continent where democracy is still new and fragile. However, corruption scandals and other missteps under the ruling African National Congress, the liberation group once led by Mandela, have undercut some of the early promise.

President Jacob Zuma periodically observes that the South African white minority is far wealthier than the black majority, an imbalance that he regards as a vestige of the apartheid system that bestowed most economic benefits on whites.

When Mandela came to power, black South Africans anticipated quick fixes after being denied proper housing, schools and health care under apartheid. The new government, however, embraced free-market policies to keep white-dominated big business on its side and attract foreign investment. The policy averted the kind of economic deterioration that occurred in Zimbabwe after independence; South Africa, though, has one of the world's biggest gaps between rich and poor.

-, APNZ, AFP and AP