Nelson Mandela, the former South African president whose stubborn defiance survived 27 years in prison and led to the dismantling of the country's racist and brutal apartheid system, has died. Mandela was 95 years old.
South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, who announced Mandela's death, said, "We've lost our greatest son."
President Obama spoke shortly after Zuma's announcement, praising Mandela as a man who "bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice."
"He no longer belongs to us -- he belongs to the ages," Obama said.
Mandela had a number of issues with his health in recent years including repeated hospitalizations with a chronic lung infection. Mandela had been listed in "serious but stable condition" after entering the hospital in June before returning to home to receive continued medical care.
In April, Mandela spent 18 days in the hospital due to a lung infection and was treated for gall stones in December 2012.
Mandela's public appearances had become increasingly rare as he dealt with his declining health.
His last public appearance was in July of 2010, when he attended the final match and closing ceremonies of the soccer World Cup held in South Africa.
In 2011, Mandela met privately with Michelle Obama when the first lady and her daughters traveled to South Africa.
Mandela and the Legacy He Leaves Behind
One of the giants of the 20th century, Mandela's career was marked not only by his heroic resistance to racism, but also by his poised and soft spoken demeanor.
After enduring nearly three decades of prison, much of it at hard labor in a lime quarry, Mandela emerged as a gentle leader who became South Africa's first black president. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in ending apartheid without violence, and later became a global statesman who inspired millions people around the world.
Mandela was born in 1918, the son of a tribal leader, in a remote village in South Africa.
His tribal name, Rolihlahla, meant "troublemaker," a moniker Mandela would more than live up to in his lifetime.
In 1952, he emerged onto the national stage when he helped organize the first country-wide protests called the Defiance Campaign. That same year he opened the country's first black law firm.
Ruth Mopati, his secretary at the firm, wrote about the way he was then in the book "Mandela," saying, "He was able to relate to people with respect and therefore he was respected in return."
While Mandela's party, the African National Congress, had always been dedicated to non-violence, in 1960 the ANC was banned to prevent further protests after police shot dead 69 black protestors in what became known as the Sharpeville massacre.
The events radicalized the organization and led to the creation of the ANC military wing, for which Mandela became its first commander in 1961.
In 1962, Mandela was sent to prison on a charge of inciting a strike.
"At 1:30 in the morning, on March 30, I was awakened by sharp, unfriendly knocks at my door, the unmistakable signature of the police. 'The time has come,' I said to myself as I opened the door to find half a dozen armed security policemen," Mandela said.
Two years later, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the white government. Much of the next 27 years in prison were spent in the infamous Robben Island prison where he did hard labor in a lime quarry.
During his nearly three decades behind bars, Mandela would become a myth. The government even banned any use of Mandela's image or words, leaving a whole generation to grow up knowing little about the world's most famous political prisoner.
Nelson Mandela Teamed Up With White Leader F.W. de Klerk
Mandela spoke about his time in his autobiography: "A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones -- and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals."
After 27 years, President F.W. de Klerk announced in 1990, "Mr. Nelson Mandela will be released from Victor Vestor prison…" On Feb. 11, 1990 Mandela emerged from prison into a world he had not seen in almost three decades.
Mandela described leaving the prison and greeting the crowds by saying, "I raised my right fist and there was a roar. I had not been able to do that for 27 years and it gave me a surge of strength and joy."
The country's black townships erupted into celebration for a returning hero. Mandela announced: "Today all South Africans -- black and white -- know that apartheid has no future."
Mandela and de Klerk forged an uneasy partnership in the coming years, despite sharing the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Peace, however, would not come quickly. More than 4,000 people died in political violence in the year leading up the country's free elections in 1994.
On April 27, 1994, millions of blacks in an extraordinary show of determination lined up for hours to cast their first ballots. The ANC won in a landslide and Mandela became South Africa's first black president.
Mandela announced: "I am the product of Africa and her long cherished dream of a rebirth that can now be realized so that all of her children may play in the sun."
He remained in office for five years. In 1999 in his final act of leadership, he oversaw the peaceful transfer of power to a handpicked successor.
His post-prison years were marred, however, by the scandal that surrounded his wife Winnie Mandela. They were married for only four months when Mandela was sent away to prison, and she spent the next 27 years campaigning for his release and amassing her own power base.
By the time Mandela was freed from jail, Winnie had become an unpopular and feared figure in South Africa. She was eventually convicted of kidnapping in the case of four teenage boys, including one who died. She was sentenced to six years in prison, but the charges were later reduced to theft and fraud and she was forced to pay a fine instead.
Mandela's Late in Life Love Life
Mandela, who had stood by his wife at first, divorced her in 1995 after revealing to a South African court that his wife was carrying on an adulterous affair that left him as "the loneliest man."
But a late-in-life romance blossomed for the gentle statesman with Graca Machel, an influential campaigner for children's rights and the widow of Mozambique's former president Samora Machel. The two were married in 1998 on Mandela's 80th birthday. She was 52.
In 2001 Mandela was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but doctors said that wasn't unusual for man of Mandela's age and treated it with radiation therapy.
After he left office, Mandela became a global statesman, mediating conflicts in some of the world's worst troubled spots.
He also devoted much of his time to his charity for children. In an interview with PBS' "Frontline," Rick Stengel who co-authored "A Long Walk to Freedom" with Mandela, said , "One of the things that separates Mandela from other people ... is that he's an optimist. He's a cockeyed optimist."
In 2008, tens of thousands of people turned out in London to honor him for his 90th birthday. Nelson Mandela told them the fight against injustice is not yet won. But after a lifetime of working for peace, he told the crowd, "It is in your hands now."
The following year, actor and director Clint Eastwood delivered his Academy award-winning film, "Invictus," telling the story of Mandela's efforts to unite the people of South Africa through a national rugby team in 1995. The title of the film came from a short Victorian poem by the same name that Mandela was known for reciting.
In the end, the boy who was named "troublemaker" became one of the greatest peacemakers of the past century.
He will be greatly remembered as a symbol of the fight for human rights, and as a leader who healed a greatly divided nation in the face of overwhelming odds.
ABC News' Lauren Effron contributed to this report.
- Society & Culture
- Winnie Mandela
- South Africa