Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s iconic former president whose lifelong struggle against apartheid helped break the country’s system of racial discrimination, died Thursday at the age of 95.
South African President Jacob Zuma announced the anti-apartheid crusader's death at a somber press conference Thursday.
"Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together, and it is together that we will bid him farewell," Zuma told his country.
He said Mandela would receive a state funeral and that the country's flags would be lowered Friday and remain at half-staff until after Mandela's funeral.
"He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages," U.S. President Barack Obama said from the White House, in personal remarks acknowledging the profound influence Mandela's activism had had on his own political awakening.
"Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us," Obama went on. "His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better."
Mandela had been in and out of the hospital for months this year and had been receiving treatment at home since September.
In June, he had been admitted to a Pretoria facility for treatment of a recurring lung infection, according to a statement released by South Africa's President Jacob Zuma. He returned home three months later, on Sept. 1, even though his condition remained critical and at times unstable, according to the government. His family applauded the move, saying it would allow them to better provide "love and support" for the ailing icon.
Mandela had suffered from lung problems since he contracted tuberculosis on South Africa's Robben Island, where he spent 27 years as a political prisoner. Controversial images of the former leader broadcast by state television after an April hospitalization for pneumonia showed him blank-faced and visibly ailing.
Though his declining health kept him from the public eye in his final years, Mandela’s home on the country’s Eastern Cape remained a routine stopping point for world leaders and dignitaries seeking a visit with one of the century’s most beloved statesmen.
Perhaps even more than his improbable path from South Africa’s most-wanted man to its first democratically elected president (not to mention the first member of the country’s black majority to hold such an office), it was Mandela’s public composure and grace in the face of injustice that elevated him to pantheon of civil rights heroes.
As a young lawyer and leader of the African National Congress’s Youth Wing, an anti-apartheid activist group, Mandela challenged the white establishment with walk-outs, protests and marches that displayed the frustrations simmering throughout the country’s impoverished townships. When the government responded by tightening its grip, Mandela and his fellow activists pushed harder, enduring beatings and jail time for their defiance.
As the government ratcheted up its brutality, killing 69 unarmed protesters in the Johannesburg suburb of Sharpeville in 1960, Mandela eventually resorted to sabotage, applying pressure through attacks on state-owned property. For that, he was convicted of treason. At his sentencing, moments before he would vanish behind bars for 27 years, he gave a famously stirring speech on the “ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”—an ideal for which he said he was prepared to die.
Nearly three decades later, he walked out of prison, 71 years old with a head of gray hair, and pumped skyward. Unbroken by years of hard labor, he soon embarked on an international tour urging supporters to continue their sanctions against the South African government, despite President F. W. de Klerk’s reforms, which included freeing Mandela from prison. (The pair shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for "laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.")
From the U.S. to Japan to the U.K., Mandela was received with euphoria, drawing throngs of banner-waving supporters. In London, luminaries from the music and movie world gathered at Wembley Stadium for a tribute concert to the recently freed icon. In a visit to New York two months later, according to a New York Times report, Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch wept as Mandela praised David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor.
Amid all his travel, Mandela, as a leader of the ANC, was also faced with the domestic challenge of negotiating a path to peace in a country that was arguably more polarized than ever. Working with the government and other opposing political factions, he helped lay the groundwork for the country’s first democratic presidential election, which he won in 1994 with more than 60 percent of the vote. In his victory address, he said it was time to “heal the old wounds and build a new South Africa.”
His five-year tenure was tumultuous, as both crime and unemployment spiked. But his single term was also marked by inspiring glimpses of what a multi-racial democratic South Africa could be. One such glimpse, recalled in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film “Invictus,” was the country’s unlikely 1995 rugby World Cup victory over New Zealand, when South Africans of all races united to cheer the home team and “their” president, whose name they chanted from the stands.
Even after his presidency, he continued his role of mediator, conciliator and adviser, participating in a variety of peace talks and negotiations between sparring nations. He established the Elders, a group of retired political figures including Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan, who campaigned for human rights, equality and peace. He established the Mandela Rhodes Foundation to help young, talented Africans develop into future political and social leaders, and in 2010, he campaigned for and appeared at South Africa’s 2010 FIFA World Cup when he was 91 years old and still a powerful living symbol of hope and unity.
Mondli Makhanya, the former editor-in-chief of South Africa’s Sunday Times, called Mandela “the glue that binds South Africa together” in a 2009 interview with The New York Times, and said that upon his death, the fearful question facing the nation would be, “who will bind us?”
Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Mthatha, formerly Umtata, in eastern South Africa. His birth name was Rolihlahla Mandela. He was raised by the chief of the Tembu tribe after his father, a prominent tribal adviser, died when Mandela was still a child. Mandela would come to be known affectionately in South Africa by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba. He was educated at a Christian school, where he was given the English name Nelson, and later went to college, where he first became politically active. He earned a law degree from the University of South Africa.
His first two marriages — to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, a nurse, in 1944 and Nomzamo Winnie Madikileza, a political activist, in 1958 — ended in divorce. He had four children with his first wife, three of whom died, and two children with his second wife. He remarried again at the age of 80 to Graca Machel, a human rights activist and the widow of the late president of Mozambique.
In addition to his wife, Mandela is survived by three children and more than 25 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.