Pope Francis on Friday hailed the late Nelson Mandela, writing in a telegram to South African President Jacob Zuma that the anti-apartheid icon promoted the "human dignity of all the nation's citizens."

In the message, the Argentine pontiff said Mandela was able to forge a new South Africa "built on the firm foundations of non-violence, reconciliation and truth."

The pope expressed the sadness he felt upon learning of Mandela's death on Thursday at the age of 95 and sent "prayerful condolences" to the former president's family, the members of the current government and all the people of South Africa.

He said he was hopeful that Mandela's example would "inspire generations of South Africans to put justice and the common good at the forefront of their political aspirations."

Mandela, who spent three months in the hospital earlier this year, passed away Thursday at his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton due to complications from a recurring lung infection.

The pulmonary problems that ultimately claimed Mandela's life were a legacy of the tuberculosis he contracted during 27 years behind bars for his struggle against South Africa's racist regime.

Mandela joined the anti-apartheid African National Congress in 1944, four years before an overwhelmingly white electorate voted into power the National Party that installed that system of strict racial segregation.

Later establishing the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), he was convicted in June 1964 on charges of sabotage of power plants and other vital infrastructure and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government.

Mandela became South Africa's first freely elected president in 1994, four years after he was released from prison by order of then-President F.W. de Klerk.

The pair shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts that led to an agreement to transfer power to a government representing South Africa's black majority.

Mandela served just one term as president but he is credited with promoting reconciliation among white and black South Africans and helping to avert widespread racial violence in the post-apartheid era. EFE