JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela died peacefully at home at the age of 95 on Thursday after months fighting a lung infection, leaving his nation and the world in mourning for a man revered as a moral giant.
The former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate had been frail and ailing for nearly a year with a recurring lung illness that dated back to the 27 years he spent in apartheid jails, including the notorious Robben Island penal colony.
President Jacob Zuma's announcement late on Thursday of the death of a man who was a symbol of struggle against injustice and of racial reconciliation reverberated through South Africa and around the world. It triggered an avalanche of tributes.
"The legend is gone," said Sindisa Makana, 21, an attendant at a 24-hour petrol station in Cape Town.
Mandela's passing, while long expected, left Africa's biggest economy still distant from being the "Rainbow Nation" ideal of social peace and shared prosperity that he had proclaimed on his triumphant release from prison in 1990.
"He's in a better place, but I really hope South Africa realises what he wanted us to be ... we are not even half-way to what he wanted us to be," local resident Jack Van der Merwe said in the Johannesburg suburb of Melville.
When Zuma made his broadcast, the streets of the capital, Pretoria, and of Johannesburg were hushed, and in bars and nightclubs, music was turned off as people quietly listened.
A somber Zuma told the nation that Mandela "passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20h50".
Among the shower of tributes, U.S. President Barack Obama said the world had lost "one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth".
British Prime Minister David Cameron called Mandela "a hero of our time". "A great light has gone out in the world," he said.
Praise also came from African leaders. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said the death "will create a huge vacuum that will be difficult to fill in our continent".
Ordinary South Africans were in shock. "It feels like it's my father who has died. He was such a good man ... He was a role model unlike our leaders of today," said Annah Khokhozela, 37, a nanny, speaking in Johannesburg.
Outside Mandela's old house in Vilakazi Street, Soweto, a crowd of people, some with South African flags draped around them, gathered to sing songs in praise of the revered statesman. "Mandela you brought us peace" was one of the songs.
National figures were quick to play down fears expressed by a minority that the passing of the great conciliator might lead again to a return of the racial and political tensions that racked South Africa during the apartheid era.
"To suggest that South Africa might go up in flames - as some have predicted - is to discredit South Africans and Madiba's legacy," another veteran anti-apartheid leader, former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, said. "Madiba" is Mandela's clan name.
"The sun will rise tomorrow, and the next day and the next ... It may not appear as bright as yesterday, but life will carry on," Tutu said in a statement of tribute.
SOUTH AFRICA LOSES A PEACEMAKER
The loss of a figure famous as a peacemaker comes at a time when South Africa, which basked in global goodwill when apartheid ended, has been experiencing bloody labor unrest, growing protests against poor services, poverty, crime and unemployment and corruption scandals tainting Zuma's rule.
Mark Rosenberg, Senior Africa Analyst at the Eurasia Group, said that while Mandela's death might give Zuma's ruling African National Congress a sympathy-driven boost for elections due next year, it would hurt the ANC in the long term.
He saw Mandela's absence "sapping the party's historical legitimacy and encouraging rejection by voters who believe the ANC has failed to deliver on its economic promises and become mired in corruption."
Zuma ordered flags to be flown at half mast and said there would be a full state funeral for South Africa's first black president, who emerged from prison to help guide the country through bloodshed and turmoil to democracy.
The U.N. Security Council was in session when the ambassadors received the news of Mandela's death. They stopped their meeting and stood for a minute's silence.
"Nelson Mandela was a giant for justice," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters. "Nelson Mandela showed what is possible for our world and within each one of us if we believe, dream and work together for justice and humanity."
Obama, the first black U.S. president, described Mandela as an inspiration: "Like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him," he said at the White House.
Mandela rose from rural obscurity to challenge the might of white minority apartheid government - a struggle that gave the 20th century one of its most respected and loved figures.
He was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid in 1960 but was quick to preach reconciliation and forgiveness when the country's white minority began easing its grip on power 30 years later.
LEGACY OF PEACE
Former comrades and foes were united in their praise for Mandela, who was elected president in landmark all-race elections in 1994 after helping to steer the race-divided country towards reconciliation and away from civil war.
"His greatest legacy is that we are basically at peace with each other," F.W. de Klerk, the white Afrikaner president who released Mandela in 1990, told the BBC in an interview.
Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, an honor he shared with de Klerk.
As president, Mandela faced the task of forging a new nation from the racial injustices left over from apartheid, making reconciliation the theme of his time in office.
The hallmark of Mandela's mission was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which probed apartheid crimes on both sides of the struggle and tried to heal the country's wounds. It provided a model for other countries torn by civil strife.
In 1999, Mandela handed over power to younger leaders better equipped to manage a modern economy - a rare voluntary departure from power cited as an example to African leaders.
This made him an exception on a continent with a bloody history of long-serving autocrats and violent coups.
"Among Mandela's many legacies is his successful transition from guerrilla commander to true president," the U.S.-based risk consultancy Stratfor said in a note on the death.
In retirement, Mandela shifted his energies to battling South Africa's AIDS crisis, a struggle that became personal when he lost his only surviving son to the disease in 2005.
Mandela's last major appearance on the global stage came in 2010 when he attended the championship match of the soccer World Cup hosted by South Africa, where he received a thunderous ovation.
Charged with capital offences in the infamous 1963 Rivonia Trial, his statement from the dock was his political testimony.
"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination."
(Additional reporting by Tiisetso Motsoeneng in Soweto, Guy Faulconbridge in London, Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick, Mark Felsenthal, and Jeff Mason in Washington, Michele Nichols in New York, Stella Mapenzauswa and Peroshni Govender in Johannesburg, Wendell Roelf in Cape Town; Writing by Ed Cropley and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff, Jim Loney and Paul Simao)