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.”
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.”
RIP Nelson Mandela.
My hope is that the memory of what he stood for spurs on generations to come and that his legacy will never be forgotten.
A life well lived, and a loss that will resonate throughout all of humanity