Ban visited the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory in Johannesburg on Monday, where mourners lit candles and signed a book of condolences in memory of the democracy icon who died on December 5.

"The world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela -- one of the towering figures of our time and indeed of any time," he told journalists after a whirlwind tour of the centre, which houses a collection of historical documents on Mandela's life.

"We join together in sorrow for a mighty loss and in celebration of a mighty life. He was a giant for justice and equality and human rights,” he added.

Ban recounted meeting South Africa's first black president at his home in 2009, and thanking Mandela for his contribution to peace and freedom.

He said he was struck by the Nobel laureate's human decency.

"What he said at the time struck me so deeply,” Ban said. He said: 'Well it's not only me, there were hundreds and hundreds of known and unknown people who worked for that cause'.  I was so deeply moved and touched. What he said is still guiding me."

Ban said South Africa and the world had lost a hero. "Lala Ngoxolo," (rest in peace), he concluded in Mandela's mother tongue, isiXhosa.


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