Nelson Mandela, whose successful struggle against South Africa's apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination made him a global symbol for the cause of human rights and earned him the Nobel Prize, died Thursday. He was 95.
South African President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela's death at a news conference, saying, "We've lost our greatest son." Mandela had been in failing health for months.
Mandela spent 27 years in South African prisons before his release in 1990. He negotiated with the nation's white leaders toward establishing democracy and was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994, serving one term.
"He probably will be remembered both inside and outside South Africa as a political saint," said Michael Parks, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for his coverage of Mandela and South Africa's struggles.
"He had flaws that he had to overcome. He had a temper he had to deal with. He had to deal with what was going to be life imprisonment. Not all his decisions were great decisions, but what political leader's are?" Parks said.
As a young man, Mandela worked as a lawyer and political activist to dismantle white minority rule under which blacks were denied political rights and basic freedoms. He began by emulating the non-violent methods of India's Mahatma Gandhi. But a turn to violence as the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress that included a bombing campaign against government targets led to his imprisonment for more than a quarter-century.
A worldwide campaign against apartheid pressured the regime into releasing Mandela in 1990 at age 71. He vowed to seek peace and reconciliation with South Africa's whites — but only if blacks received full rights as citizens.
Amid tense negotiations with the government and the threat of violence on all sides, Mandela emerged as a leader who guided South Africa to a new democratic government guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens. Four years later, Mandela became his nation's first black president.
Mandela's charisma, stoic optimism and conciliation toward adversaries and oppressors established him as one of the world's most recognizable statesmen of the 20th century and a hero of South African democracy.
"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy," Mandela once said. "Then he becomes your partner."
Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with South Africa's president at the time, Frederik Willem de Klerk, for working together to dismantle apartheid.
He was born Rolihlahla Mandela in Mvezo, a village on the Mbashe River in the Transkei region on the eastern cape of South Africa in 1918. He lived his earliest years in Qunu, a village so small there were no roads, only footpaths, and families lived in huts. He was a member of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe.
He was baptized in the United Methodist Church and given the name Nelson by a teacher.
His father, a counselor to the tribal chief, died when Mandela was 9. He was adopted by the chief and lived in the more sophisticated provincial capital, where he attended a Wesleyan mission school, learning English and excelling in track and boxing. He studied law at the University of Fort Hare and University of Witwatersrand after fleeing to Johannesburg to avoid a marriage arranged by the tribal regent.
There he became involved in the anti-apartheid movement and in 1943 joined the African National Congress, where he became a leader in resistance against the ruling National Party and its apartheid policies.
He was charged with treason in 1956, along with 155 other activists, but the charges were dropped. The government outlawed the ANC in 1960, and Mandela went underground to work against the regime.
Mandela veered from non-violence as a method for change and argued for setting up a military wing of the ANC and violent tactics to bring down apartheid. Opposition to the regime's "pass laws" that dictated where black people were allowed to live and work grew intense, and in 1960, police fired on demonstrators and killed 69 people in what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre.
In 1961, Mandela became the leader of the ANC's armed wing in which he oversaw bomb attacks against government buildings. He was designated a terrorist by the white government and arrested in 1962. In June 1964, he was sentenced along with seven others to life in prison for plotting to overthrow the government through hundreds of acts of sabotage.
"I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities," he said, acting as his own lawyer at his trial. "It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
He spent 18 years of his imprisonment at Robben Island Prison off Cape Town, where the harsh conditions included laboring in a lime quarry. During that time, he became the focus of an international campaign for release led by his lifelong friend and law partner, Oliver Tambo, and Mandela's wife, Winnie, whom he married in 1958 after his first marriage to Evelyn Mase ended in 1957.
In the 1980s, the ANC under Tambo ramped up bombing attacks to include civilian targets. In one of the worst examples, an ANC car bomb exploded in downtown Pretoria in May 1983, killing 19 people.
In an attempt to calm the violence, President P.W. Botha offered in 1985 to free Mandela if he would renounce violence as a tool for change. Mandela refused.
Demands for Mandela's release became a popular civil rights cause in the Western world in the 1980s, along with calls for an end to apartheid from the United States and other nations. Worldwide economic sanctions against South Africa were tightened.
In the USA, public demonstrations and civil disobedience, often led by celebrities, were staged outside the South African government's diplomatic offices and other institutions aimed at pressuring the regime to free Mandela and abolish racial separatism laws. Under pressure from foreign nations and both whites and blacks in South Africa, de Klerk freed Mandela in 1990 and lifted the ban on the ANC.
Parks said Mandela's long imprisonment was a transformative experience in which he accepted his plight and found ways to use it to advance the cause of a multiracial South African future.
"What he did on Robben Island, he created essentially a school for the young black men who were sentenced for their activities by the apartheid government," Parks said. It was, he said, "a school that trained them to look forward with optimism, to adhere to the ANC's strong belief that South Africa belonged to all the people who lived in it, black and white together."
Mandela emerged into a movement that had been scandalized by charges of heavy-handed tactics by Mandela's wife, Winnie, who had taken a major role in ANC activities while Mandela was in jail. She had publicly justified the murder of her political opponents in the black community, and her bodyguards were accused of terrorizing her adversaries.
She was convicted in 1991 of kidnapping in the murder of a 14-year-old boy accused of being an informant. Her six-year jail term was reduced to a fine on appeal, and Mandela divorced her in 1992.
Two years later, he became president of South Africa. In his inaugural speech, he said the struggle for freedom for blacks was difficult but in the end produced "a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist government." He served one term, which ended in 1999.
Parks said Mandela's main accomplishment as president was "not letting the country devolve into a racial war."
"It could have," Parks said. "Everybody thought that was a great danger. In some respects, it was the personality of Mandela and the ANC's commitment to a non-racial society that saw it through."
Mandela retired from political life in 2004, at 85, to spend his final years in what he called "quiet reflection" with his third wife, Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique. The two married on his 80th birthday in 1998.
He maintained a global presence through his Mandela Foundation and in 2007 organized a group of senior world figures he called The Elders to work on global problems. He became an advocate for HIV/AIDS after the death of his son, Makgatho, from the disease in 2005, despite strong taboos in his country against those who had the virus. Mandela was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001.
Emblematic of the dramatic changes in South Africa and his transformational role, the nation announced in February 2012, on the 22nd anniversary of his release from prison, that Mandela's image would appear on South African paper currency.
Undergirding Mandela's career was an abiding dedication to diversity, inclusion and universal human rights while preserving ethnic and cultural differences, said Anders Hallengren, a Swedish historian and philosopher.
"Nelson Mandela's fight for freedom was guided by an idea of integrated integrity: All nations and all religious groups of the country should have equal rights and preserve their native tongues and cultural characteristics," Hallengren told USA TODAY.
"When the first 'black' government (of South Africa) was formed in 1994, it was in reality a 'rainbow government,' " he said. "Ministers of state were blacks, whites, Indians, Muslims, Christians, liberals."
"In Mandela's solution to the main problems of the world, all cultures meet on equal terms," Hallengren said.
In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee said Mandela and de Klerk managed a peaceful transition to a new political order based on democracy through "personal integrity and great political courage." It said that beyond ending racial suppression in South Africa, their "policy of peace and reconciliation also points the way to the peaceful resolution of similar deep-rooted conflicts elsewhere in the world."
One of Mandela's last public appearances was in 2010, when he attended the closing ceremony of the World Cup soccer games in South Africa.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote that when he walked out of prison, his mission was "to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both," because both are robbed of their humanity when human freedom is restricted.
"I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter," he wrote. "I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds there are many more hills to climb."