By Tracy Conner
Nelson Mandela, the revered South African anti-apartheid icon who spent 27 years in prison, led his country to democracy, and became its first black president, died Thursday. He was 95.
President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela’s death in a live televised address, saying South Africa “has lost its greatest son.”
“Nelson Mandela brought us together, and it is together that we bid him farewell,” he added.
Though he was in power for only five years, Mandela was a figure of enormous moral influence the world over–a symbol of revolution, resistance and triumph over racial segregation.
He inspired a generation of activists, left celebrities and world leaders star-struck, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and raised millions for humanitarian causes.
South Africa is still bedeviled by challenges, from class inequality to political corruption to AIDS. And with Mandela’s death, it has lost a beacon of optimism.
In his jailhouse memoirs, Mandela wrote that even after spending so many years in a Spartan cell on Robben Island–with one visitor a year and one letter every six months–he still had faith in human nature.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” he wrote in “Long Walk to Freedom.”
“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Mandela retired from public life in 2004 with the half-joking directive, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” and had largely stepped out of the spotlight, spending much of his time with family in his childhood village.
His health had been fragile in recent years. On Dec. 8, 2012, he was taken to a Johannesburg hospital with a lung infection and had gallstone surgery before he was released Dec. 27.
In his later years, Mandela was known to his countrymen simply as Madiba, the name of his tribe and a mark of great honor. But when he was born on July 18, 1918, he was named Rolihlahla, which translated roughly–and prophetically–to “troublemaker.”
Mandela was nine when his father died, and he was sent from his rural village to the provincial capital to be raised by a fellow chief. The first member of his family to get a formal education, he went to boarding school and then enrolled in South Africa’s elite Fort Hare University, where his activism unfurled with a student boycott.