Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail before being elected South Africa's first black president, is dead at age 95, South African President Jacob Zuma said Thursday.
Mandela's health had been on the decline following a hospitalization for a lung infection in June and his eldest daughter reportedly said he was "on his deathbed" just days ago.
Zuma praised Mandela's "compassion and his humanity."
"Our thoughts are with the South African people who today mourn the loss of the one person who more than any other came to embody their sense of a common nationhood," he said in a televised address. "This is the moment of our deepest sorrow. Our nation has lost its greatest son."
Mandela was convicted of treason and given life imprisonment in 1964 due to his role in attempting to end white minority rule in South Africa. His likeness and quotations of his writings were banned as he endured years of isolation on Robben Island prison. Meanwhile, thousands of South Africans striving for equality were killed, tortured and jailed. It wasn't until Feb. 11, 1990, that Mandela was released from prison due to the pending end of white-only rule.
"What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human: we saw in him what we seek in ourselves and in him we saw so much of ourselves," Zuma said. "Let us reaffirm his vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or is possessed by another. Let us commit ourselves to strive together, spreading neither strength nor courage to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist Democratic and prosperous South Africa."
Just before leaving the presidency, Mandela recognized the achievements of his country and their journey to becoming a democracy.
"We have confounded the prophets of doom and achieved a bloodless revolution. We have restored the dignity of every South African," he said in 1999 at age 80.
President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, said the world should "strive for a future that is worthy of [Mandela's] sacrifice" in a live address Thursday following the news.
"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. He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages," Obama said. "His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better. The fact that he did it all with grace and good humor and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections only makes the man that much more remarkable."
Obama visited Mandela's prison cell in June during a trip to South Africa and in his brief speech Thursday reflected personally on the effect Mandela had on his own life.
"I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life," he said. "The first thing I ever did that involved an issue or policy or politics was a protest against apartheid. I would study his words and his writings. The day he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they are guided by their hopes and not by their fears."
Zuma said South African flags will be at half-staff starting Friday until after the as-yet-to-be-scheduled state funeral that Mandela will receive.