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Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to fighting for liberty

Nelson MandelaSouth AfricaAfricaJohannesburg (South Africa)Pretoria (South Africa)Nobel Prize AwardsJacob Zuma

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Dressed in black against a twilight-blue background, a somber South African President Jacob Zuma appeared on television to give his countrymen the news they had long dreaded.

"My fellow South Africans," he intoned. "Our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation, has departed."

With that announcement, delivered about 11:35 p.m. Thursday, South Africa learned that it had lost its greatest figure: its first black president, the leader of the movement to end the apartheid system of racial discrimination and a man known to most as simply Madiba.

"Our nation has lost its greatest son," Zuma said. "Our people have lost a father."

PHOTOS: Nelson Mandela through the years

Mandela, 95, never recovered after being admitted to a hospital in June with the latest of several severe bouts of pneumonia. Although doctors managed to stabilize his condition, he remained in critical health until the end. He was released from the hospital in September and was treated at his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.

Zuma said he died there peacefully at 8:50 p.m. Thursday.

Almost immediately, people began to converge around the house to pay their respects, to be a part of history or simply because they didn't know what else to do. They were white and black, many still in their pajamas, some flying South African flags from their cars.

"Everybody's heart is with the old man," said Prince Maphumulo, 43, who drove more than 60 miles to the home when he heard the news. Maphumulo, a soldier in the South African army, was wearing a jacket from Mandela's African National Congress.

"We are actually not surprised in South Africa by now because he has been sick for a very, very long time," he said. "We've been expecting this any time." But he added: "His legacy is incomparable anywhere in the world. He's a world icon. He's the liberator of South Africa. He managed to do miracles. That man changed his country without spilling any blood.... He used his power the right way."

FULL COVERAGE: Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela dies

Melissa Hoffman, who also drove to the house, said she had been on the phone Thursday night with a South African friend who had moved to Australia. The conversation was interrupted when the friend received a text message from another South African, who had moved to Canada. She read the text to Hoffman: Nelson Mandela had died.

"It's so huge, it's just so big," Hoffman said of the news. "In a way, it feels surreal, but in another way, it's been coming for such a long time."

In recent days, Mandela's family appeared to prepare the nation for its hero's death. His daughter, Makaziwe Mandela-Amuah, had said Tuesday that Mandela was on his deathbed.

"Tata is still with us, strong, courageous," she told state-owned television, using the Xhosa word for father. "Even for a lack of a better word, on his 'deathbed' he is teaching us lessons: lessons in patience, in love, lessons of tolerance. Every moment I get with him I'm amazed. There are times where I have to pinch myself that I come from this man who is a fighter even though you can see he is struggling, but fighting spirit is still there with him."

As Mandela's health worsened Thursday, family members, including two of his granddaughters, and close friends visited the home. There were reports that a family meeting had been called at the house, but these were denied by family members.

Although it was clear that Mandela had been fading, Zuma's announcement came without warning for most people. And in a country where people tend to go to bed relatively early, many probably were asleep by the time the president went on TV.

"He is now resting. He is now at peace," Zuma said.

Shortly after 2 a.m., a long, slow-moving convoy left Mandela's home, escorted by dozens of police officers on motorcycles riding in a V formation with their lights flashing. A black van carried Mandela's coffin, draped in the national flag.

Low-flying helicopters hovered overhead as the procession pulled onto the highway to Pretoria. A handful of late-night onlookers recorded the somber moment with their cellphone cameras.

Zuma said that the nation's flags would be lowered to half staff until after his funeral.

Mandela is expected to be buried in a private family cemetery in his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, not far from his birth village of Mvezo.

Zuma appealed to his countrymen to look beyond their grief, to strive for the future of the country and to be what Mandela would have wanted them to be.

"Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss," Zuma said in his speech from the government building in Pretoria. "This is the moment of our deepest sorrow."

He also paid tribute to Mandela's greatest legacy: the vision of a nonracial democracy in which all are equal.

"As we gather, wherever we are in the country and wherever we are in the world, let us recall the values for which Madiba fought," he said, referring to Mandela's clan name. "Let us reaffirm his vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another."

After Zuma's speech, a photograph of Mandela appeared on the screen and the national anthem was played.

Former South African President F.W. de Klerk, who negotiated an end to apartheid and the transition to black majority rule with Mandela, told the BBC that Mandela's greatest legacy was peace in South Africa.

"His greatest legacy is that he was a unifier, and that he successfully broke the bridge between the conflict of the past and the peace of today," said De Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela in 1993, the year before the country's first democratic elections.

Mandela's last days were spent in his bedroom, which had been transformed into an intensive care unit, with a 24-hour team of doctors. He had lost the power of speech, according to former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, because of tubes inserted in his throat to clear fluid from his lungs.

Madikizela-Mandela told a newspaper last month that Mandela was so fragile he had to be kept "literally sterile" to prevent him from catching an infection. She said he communicated with the family using facial expressions.

When Mandela was critically ill in late June and early July, a family row erupted over the burial place of Mandela's children's bones. At the heart of the dispute was where Mandela would be buried.

Millions across the nation prayed for him to recover, and thousands of people visited his hospital, leaving tributes of flowers and letters.

Although many wished for his recovery, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, voiced the words many seemed afraid to utter, in June, when he wished Mandela "a perfect, peaceful end."

It was a wish that was apparently fulfilled.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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