Addressing South Africans, Zuma said “Nelson Mandela brought us together and it is together that we bid him farewell.”
Mandela was the first black president of South Africa and the first to win a fully free democratic election in the country. He served a single term from 1994 through 1999 and then retired from public life.
In June, his health took a turn for the worse and he was listed in critical condition. After spending 12 weeks in the hospital, Mandela was released to go home to continue receiving treatment.
Mandela was hospitalized a handful of times between 2012 and 2013 for recurring lung infections that continually worsened.
He has dealt with the infections since he contracted tuberculosis while imprisoned for his role in rebelling against South Africa’s racist system of apartheid.
Mandela called apartheid a “human tragedy” and spent 27 years incarcerated for fighting against the practice that was still in place three decades after legal integration in the U.S.
“We saw our country tear itself apart in terrible conflict,” Mandela said during his inauguration speech nearly 20 years ago. “The time for healing of wounds has come. Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another.”
Mandela’s ascension to president ended the divisive control of the National Party, which rose to power during World War II. He sought to build on the foundation laid by his predecessor, F.W. de Klerk, who endured criticism as a traitor to his race and the National Party for repealing apartheid in 1991.
Prior to that, Mandela was perhaps the world’s most famous political prisoner.
The South African government sentenced him to life in prison for his role in a militant band associated with the African National Council, a movement-turned-political party that battled apartheid.
During a prison sentence that spanned from Aug. 5, 1962 to Feb. 11, 1990, an international outcry for his release grew louder and louder.
“Free Mandela” became a mantra that was emblazoned on T-shirts, pins, buildings and into lyrics.
He earned a degree from the University of London and began working on his undergraduate through its correspondence program while behind bars. He was nominated for chancellor of the university in 1981.
Mandela and de Klerk worked together closely after Mandela’s release to establish a platform that could help the country transition into a truly democratic society and help bridge the gap between Afrikaners (whites) and native Africans.
The two earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and in the years that followed his retirement as president, Mandela served as an advocate for human rights around the world and a statesman for his native country.
Some of his efforts focused on ending the global AIDS epidemic. His son, Makgatho, died from the disease in 2005.
Mandela separated from his second wife, Winnie, in 1992 and the couple divorced four years later. His first marriage to Evelyn Mase also ended in divorce in 1958.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born July 18, 1918, in a village called Mvezo in the Transkei region of South Africa. He is a descendant of the Thembu dynasty, of which his great-grandfather was ruler.
Mandela leaves behind wife Graca Machel – a human rights activist and former widowed first lady of Mozambique – whom he married on his 80th birthday. He was the father to six children, 20 grandchildren and numerous great-grandchildren.