Mandela, branded a criminal by the all-white regime, spent years in prison, yet rose to become South Africa’s first African president, elected by both black and white voters.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, three years after being released from prison.
Current president Jacob Zuma said in televised address that Mandela was the “Father of the Nation.”
“Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father,” he said. “What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”
Mandela set an example for his nation and the world for opening the door to racial reconciliation in the once sharply divided country. His personal gestures included lunching with the prosecutor who jailed him and singing the country’s traditional Afrikaans national anthem.
He also went out of his way to reach out to the widow of apartheid Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd on his death. Verwoerd was in power when Mandela was jailed.
In another gesture that became the basis for the 2009 movie “Invictus,” Mandela refused to change the name or colors of the South African national rugby team, even though it had always been associated with the apartheid regime.
He had called on the team to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup as a way to unite the country. On the day of the championship game in Johannesburg, he walked out on the field in team colors to congratulate the players for winning.
The crowd of 63,000, overwhelmingly white, embraced the gesture and chanted his name wildly.
The scene was a far cry from his 18 years at hard labor in the country’s notorious Robben Island penal colony. He was forced to break rocks in a limestone quarry, which took a toll on his health.
He was hospitalized on June 8 this year, and for a time was on life support. Doctors said he had a recurring lung infection stemming from his days in prison, complicated by kidney and liver ailments.
As the news of his death spread instantly around the world, leaders expressed their condolences and admiration for the great leader.
President Obama called on Americans to honor Mandela’s life.
“Like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my life without the example that Nelson Mandela set,” he said at a news conference “He achieved more than could be expected for any man and today he’s gone home.”
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