Former South African president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela may have lived and died on the other side of the planet, but New York paid warm tribute to a man it welcomed as a hero at a ticker-tape parade in 1990.
The US’ biggest city, with its brash consumerism, glitzy clubs and breakneck pace, could not have been further from Mandela’s time in prison, but like so many, it claimed him as its own.
Flags were lowered to half-mast at City Hall and on New York State buildings, as well as at the UN.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced on Friday that a new high school, the Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice, would open its doors in September next year on the campus Mandela visited in 1990 in Brooklyn.
He invited New York’s 8.4 million residents to honor Mandela’s legacy by volunteering for community service this weekend.
The Apollo Theater, a feted venue for African-American performers in Harlem, announced his death over its marquee: “In memory of Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013. He changed our world.”
Mandela and his then wife Winnie visited Harlem in 1990.
“His triumphant story of fighting against the South African government for their racist policies resonated deeply with the Harlem community,” the Apollo Theater said in a statement.
“It was an honor to have Mr Mandela visit us in Harlem and we send our condolences to Mr. Mandela’s family, friends and supporters around the world,” it added.
A three-minute video installation showing some of Mandela’s most famous words and teachings were due to be broadcast on electronic billboards at Times Square every 30 minutes throughout the weekend.
A small gathering braved the cold and rain to attend a candlelight vigil outside the South African consulate.
“There will be no one like him,” said charity worker Sandra Zikalala, who moved from South Africa to New York in the 1990s. “We hope that politicians have learnt and will come up and fill the vacuum we are feeling in the world now he’s gone.”
Within hours of news of his death breaking in New York, mourners gathered outside the Apollo and Madiba, a South African restaurant named after him in Brooklyn. Mandela’s struggle resonated particularly strongly with the civil rights movement in the US.
“It was a total David and Goliath story and he just reminded me to soldier on, no matter what, keep going, don’t let them tell you no,” Harlem resident Tennessee Nichols said.
The South African civil rights icon visited the city on June 20, 1990, just months after he was released from 27 years of incarceration on Robben Island, exhausted and thrust into a punishing schedule.
The visit was organized by New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins.
It was the first leg of an eight-city US visit at which an estimated 750,000 people saw Mandela at one point, with crowds lining the sidewalks to cheer his motorcade.
Another visit in 2002 to support New York in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is also remembered with affection. In 2005, Bloomberg gave Mandela a key to the city.
However, despite all the adulation, the US government only formally lifted Mandela’s name from a terror blacklist in 2008.
It took a bill signed by then-US president George W. Bush to stop Mandela having to get special certification from the US secretary of state that he is not a terrorist in order to visit the US.
The US government had previously listed the African National Congress as a terrorist organization, and barred its members from entering the country.
The ban was lifted in 1990, but some of the anti-apartheid fighters remained on the US blacklist.