Activist and Peacemaker Nelson Mandela Dead at 95

Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa credited with ending apartheid there, died Thursday in South Africa. He was 95 years old.

In recent years, the nation’s first black president had battled health issues that included multiple hospitalizations for treatment of a recurring lung infection. Photo: Bernard Bujold/ Flickr

On Thursday the whole world joined together in mourning Nelson Mandela, the first South Africa black president, who spent 27 years as a prisoner for opposing apartheid, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and an enduring symbol of integrity, principle and resilience.

In a state television address, President Jacob Zuma said Mr. Mandela had died that evening after a long illness. “Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father,” said Mr. Zuma, dressed in a dark jacket and reading his statement in deep somber tones. “Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”

In a somber statement from the White House, President Barack Obama said Mr. Mandela “achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today he’s gone home and we’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.” Obama ordered U.S. flags to be lowered immediately to half staff until Monday evening in tribute to Mandela.

The 95-year-old died peacefully surrounded by family at home in Johannesburg at 8:50 p.m. local time. Mandela had spent almost three months in a Pretoria hospital after being admitted in June with a recurring lung infection.

Meanwhile, South Africans gathered to celebrate Mandela’s life and mourn his death. His passing initiates more than a week of ceremonies reflecting both his global impact and tribal heritage.

Outside the Soweto home where he once lived, people thronged to Mandela’s former home, many wearing their best clothes, or clothed in African National Congress branded dress. Children wandered through the crowds, holding photographs of Mandela, pasted on cardboard, with the words “RIP Mandela.”

His death was felt around the world. Nearly 8,000 miles north of Johannesburg, in Paris, leaders from 53 African countries attending a summit on peace and security observed a minute of silence for Mandela on Friday.

“God was so good to us in South Africa by giving us Nelson Mandela to be our president at a crucial moment in our history,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said. “He inspired us to walk the path of forgiveness and reconciliation, and so South Africa did not go up in flames.”

Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said the world had lost “a visionary leader, a courageous voice for justice and a clear moral compass.” Both Annan and Tutu were part of Mandela’s group of African statesman known as The Elders.

Memorials popped up from Los Angeles to Chicago, where mourners placed flowers and candles in front of murals bearing his likeness. In Washington, crowds gathered in front of the South African Embassy, says the CNN.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born July 18, 1918, in a small village in what is now Eastern Cape province of South Africa. A teacher at a British colonial boarding school later gave him the English name Nelson.

Mr. Mandela was the first in his family to attend school and eventually began working toward a law degree in Johannesburg, a bustling commercial hub. He hoped for a civil-service job in the Native Affairs Department in the government, about as high as a black man could aspire at the time

His struggle for civil rights involved “a steady accumulation of one thousand slights, one thousand indignities, one thousand unremembered moments, [that] produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that impoverished my people,” he wrote in his autobiography.

After 20 years of leading a non-violent campaign against the South African government, his philosophy switched to armed struggle. In 1964 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting to overthrow the government by violence.

Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid, he was freed in 1990 and quickly set about working to unite the nation through forgiveness and reconciliation.

He separated from his wife Winnie, and later, when she was convicted on charges of kidnapping and accessory to assault, they divorced. Mandela acknowledged in his autobiography that the difficulties she faced while he was in prison rivaled his own; she raised their two daughters – Zenani and Zindzi – alone and had to deal with government persecutions, writes PBS.

In 1982, he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison, on the nearby mainland, where he spent much of his time in solitary confinement. In 1985, President P. W. Botha offered to release him if he would renounce armed struggle but he refused, saying “only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”

Finally released from this third prison, Victor Verster – an event broadcast internationally – on February 11, 1990 , he was elected president of the ANC in 1991.  In 1993 he and President Frederik Willem De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1994, at the age of 75, he was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa.

“Mandela’s biggest legacy … was his remarkable lack of bitterness and the way he did not only talk about reconciliation, but he made reconciliation happen in South Africa,” said F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president and Mandela’s predecessor.

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