Nelson Mandela, crusader against racism and South Africa's first freely elected president, died Thursday of complications from a recurring lung infection. He was 95.
"Our nation has lost its greatest son," President Jacob Zuma told South Africans in a nationally broadcast address.
Mandela, who spent three months in the hospital earlier this year, passed away at his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.
The lung problems that ultimately claimed Mandela's life were a legacy of the tuberculosis he contracted during 27 years in prison for his struggle against South Africa's racist apartheid regime.
July marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Rivonia trial, which ended in June 1964 with Mandela's conviction on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government.
Senior regime officials visited Mandela behind bars in the mid-1980s and secret negotiations were under way during the administration of President P.W. Botha, who stepped down in 1989 after suffering a stroke.
Botha's successor, F.W. de Klerk, ordered Mandela released from prison in 1990 and the two men entered into talks that led three years later to an agreement to transfer power to a government representing South Africa's black majority.
The pair shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
Mandela's African National Congress won the 1994 elections with 62 percent of the vote and he became the country's first black head of state.
Despite his immense popularity, Mandela chose to step down in 1999 after a single term.
The last public appearance of the "father of the nation" was at the closing ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Born July 18, 1918, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a lawyer who joined the ANC in 1944, four years before an overwhelmingly white electorate voted into power the National Party, which installed the system of strict segregation known as apartheid.
Traditionally committed to peaceful means, the ANC agreed in 1961 to authorize members who were so inclined to join Mandela in violent actions against the government.
Mandela then established the organization's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), to engage in sabotage of power plants and other vital infrastructure.
World leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, offered tributes to Mandela on learning of his death.
"I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life. My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid," Obama said.
"The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set," the first black president of the United States said. EFE