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Unprecedented social media outpouring at Mandela’s passing

12/13/2013, 2:24 p.m.

Record numbers of Facebook and Twitter users posted their thoughts and prayers for former South African leader Nelson Mandela and the nation, with numbers running in the hundreds of thousands. Poems, videos, prayers and elegies filled the Internet ether before, during and after the state’s memorial service, which took place Tuesday under heavy rain in an open stadium in Soweto.

The loudest cheers—both virtual and online—were for Presidents Barack Obama and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Close to 3 million followers were following “Nelson Mandela” on Facebook, as opposed to 35,000 for the current president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. More than 800,000 were following Mandela on Twitter as of Tuesday afternoon.

Mugabe, who has been repeatedly compared in Western media to the South Africa leader, had a chilly relationship with the departed. Mandela once said of his Zimbabwean counterpart, “He was the star, and then the sun came out.” Speaking with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mandela hinted at a rivalry: “Before I was released from prison, [Mugabe] was the most popular African leader in this area, but when I was released, the media said this is the end of Mugabe from the point of view of popularity. In fact, he himself did not want me to come out of jail.”

Political analyst Ibbo Mandaza opined: “People like Mugabe regard South Africa as a latecomer in the process toward independence, whereas South Africa has implicitly seen itself as the big brother in the region. So that tension has always been there.”

In Harare, Information Minister Jonathan Moyo retorted: “While the subtext of the gratuitous comparisons has been that other African leaders such as President Mugabe should emulate Mandela, the more important and rather self-evident fact is that God created only one Nelson Mandela, with no clones, in the same way he created only one Winston Churchill, one John F Kennedy, one Mao, one Lenin and one Mahatma Gandhi.

“In the same way that Britain has not had another Churchill and America has not had another Kennedy, Africa will not have another Mandela … the gratuitous comparisons of Mandela and other African leaders are ultimately a waste of time.”

The late Nobel Prize winner visited Zimbabwe once during his term in office. The main street to Zimbabwe’s parliament is named Nelson Mandela Avenue while South African currency that features Mandela’s face is legal tender in Zimbabwe.