Nelson Mandela, who heroically symbolized the longstanding fight against South Africa’s white supremacist government – and rose from its victimized prisoner to his nation’s powerful and compassionate leader – has died, according to South African President Jacob Zuma.
He was 95.
“My Fellow South Africans, our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding President of our democratic nation has departed. He passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20h50 on the 5th of December 2013,” Zuma said in a statement.
“He is now resting. He is now at peace. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father. Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”
Having suffered from failing health over the past several months, Mandela was readmitted to a Pretoria hospital in early June for a recurring lung infection that at one point developed into pneumonia. His lungs had been weakened as a result of his contracting tuberculosis during the 27 years he spent behind bars. On Sept. 1, he was released from the hospital but remained “critical and is at times unstable,” according to a statement from the Office of the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa. His treatment continued at home.
During those years as political prisoner No. 0221141011, and later No. 46664, Mandela’s words and physical likeness were barred from public view in South Africa. Yet, his fame and reputation only grew, PEOPLE reported in 1990, propelled even further in the instant that Mandela was set free by the country’s then-president, F.W. de Klerk.
“Our struggle has reached a decisive moment,” Mandela, then 71, told thousands of cheering supporters hours after his release. “We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle.”
Symbolic Tribal Name
Born in the rural village of Qunu, Mandela spent his early days tilling fields and herding cattle, and his nights listening to tribal elders talk of the time before the white man came to that part of South Africa. Even as a youth, Mandela showed signs of leadership. In 1930, after the death of his father, Henry Gadla Mandela – a farmer who was also the main adviser to the Paramount Chief of the Tembu tribe – 12-year-old Nelson was sent to live in the chief’s Great Place, where his intelligence quickly marked him as the heir apparent who would someday rule the tribe.
But Mandela – whose tribal name, Rolihlahla, meant “one who brings trouble upon himself” – instead chose the path of political activism. In 1940, he was expelled from Fort Hare College in the Eastern Cape for helping to organize a strike protesting efforts to limit the power of the student council. The next year he headed for Johannesburg, where he landed a job as a clerk in a white law office – and began studying for his correspondence law degree from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Along the way, Mandela married Evelyn Ntoko Mase, a nurse with whom he had four children: son Thembi (1946-69), son Makgatho (1950-2005), daughter Maki (born in 1953) and another daughter, who died when she was 9 months old. But the marriage was troubled. Evelyn wanted her husband to concentrate on his career and forget politics, while Nelson felt deep anger at the discrimination he witnessed daily. In 1944, Mandela and two close friends formed the Youth League of the African National Congress.
During that time in Johannesburg, Mandela began keeping company with a social worker named Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela, who was then 20 – 16 years his junior. Mandela separated from Evelyn in 1955, and they were divorced two years later. Daughter Maki contended that her mother learned of the divorce in a newspaper article, which left lingering bitterness.
The courtship between Nelson and Winnie was far from routine, PEOPLE noted. In December 1956, police arrested Mandela and 155 other activists, charging them with treason for staging strikes and protests in opposition to apartheid laws. Their marathon trial ended five years later in acquittal, but within months of the verdict, Mandela had gone underground to form the military wing of the ANC, which then launched a series of bombings on power plants, rail lines and other strategic targets.
Thus began a life of physical separation for Nelson and Winnie, who married in 1958 and had two children, daughters Zeni, born in 1958, and Zindzi, in 1960.
After more than a year on the run, Mandela was captured by police. He was convicted of sabotage and treason in June 1964 and sentenced to life in prison. Immediately sent to Robben Island, a craggy, windblown Alcatraz near Cape Town harbor, Mandela spent his first six months using a sledgehammer to break rocks into gravel for the roads around the prison. Later, he was sent to work in the island’s limestone quarry.
Mandela tried to make the best of the 18 years he spent on the island. Denied newspapers until 1980, he and his ANC comrades kept abreast of developments in South Africa through smuggled messages. In the evening they talked politics and proselytized new prisoners – so effectively that the place became known as Mandela University.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it,” he said. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Following his release, Mandela worked tirelessly with de Klerk to avoid a civil war, and in 1993, the two leaders shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. In 1994, in an unprecedented move for South Africa, Mandela was voted the nation’s first black president, a job he served for five years.
By then, however, his marriage to Winnie had crumbled amid rumors of her infidelity. (She also was arrested and convicted in 1991 in connection with the kidnapping and assault of a 14-year-old informant. In 2003, she was found guilty of fraud and theft of money from a funeral fund.) They separated in 1992, though she was among the visitors to the hospital to see Mandela in his final days.
In 1998, on his 80th birthday, Mandela married his third wife, Graça Machel, widow of Mozambique president Samora Machel, an ANC ally who had died in a 1986 plane crash. The next day they had a star-studded party with 2,000 guests, PEOPLE reported, including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Danny Glover and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had gently chided the couple for living out of wedlock. “She’s made a decent man out of him,” Tutu said. “Now you won’t shout at me,” Mandela, with a laugh, told his old friend.
Following his retirement from office, Mandela helped bring attention to a number of social-justice causes through the Nelson Mandela Foundation, including Africa’s overwhelming AIDS epidemic, and for a long time he continued an exhausting schedule. In July 2010, his age finally catching up with him, he made a rare public appearance at soccer’s World Cup final, circling the field in a golf cart with his wife.
“I have walked that long road to freedom,” Mandela once said. “I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
RELATED VIDEO: Watch PEOPLE’s Tribute to Nelson Mandela