Legendary leader and former South African President Nelson Mandela passed away on Thursday, December 5, following years of iconic activism. Dedicating the span of his life to battling against racial oppression and in favor of equality in South Africa, Mandela not only helped bring an end to the racial apartheid of his country, but also pushed it to become the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” President Jacob Zuma said in a televised address on Thursday night, adding that Mr. Mandela had died at 8:50pm local time. “His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him our love.”
President Zuma called Mandela’s death “the moment of our greatest sorrow,” and said that South Africa’s thoughts were now with the former president’s family. “They have sacrificed much and endured much so that our people could be free,” he added.
Mandela, a man who took many stands, got his start in the world as a well-rounded student and militant freedom fighter, turned wronged prisoner, turned president. He was responsible for bringing worldwide attention to the racial apartheid of South Africa, which legalized segregation enforced by the South African government until 1994. A fighter against white minority rule, Mandela had often put his freedom on the line so that others around him could be granted with the opportunities that he felt everyone deserved. He was frequently called “a true warrior” of equal rights.
Born Rolihlahla Mandela, the iconic protestor’s journey began in the tiny village of Mvezo—in the hills of the Eastern Cape—where he was born on July 18, 1918. He was later named Nelson by an early teacher as part of a custom which required all schoolchildren to receive Christian names. When his father died, a nine-year-old Mandela was taken in by a local tribe chief, who educated him.
Mandela briefly attended the University College of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape, but was expelled after taking part in a protest with Oliver Tambo, with whom he later opened the nation’s first black law firm.
Subsequently, he completed his bachelor’s degree program through correspondence courses and went on to study law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, but left without graduating in 1948. His first college—the University of Fort Hare—has since named their entire law program after him, calling it the Nelson R. Mandela School of Law.
While at the University of Witwatersrand, Mandela helped form the youth league of the Africa National Congress, hoping to transform the organization into a more radical movement—the start of his civil disobedience and lifelong commitment to uniting the colors of his nation.
In 1982, Mandela would be sentenced to prison for committing treason against the white minority government. After serving 18 years of the 27-year sentence, he would not only lead the African National Congress to the first fully democratic election in his country’s history, but he became the first black president in South Africa, serving from 1994-1999, and stepping down at the age of 75.
The lifelong activist spent his early retirement years focused on charitable causes for children and later began speaking out about AIDS, which killed millions of Africans—including his son Makgatho in 2003.
Mandela retreated from the public eye at the age of 85, withdrawing to his homes in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Houghton and his ancestral village in the Eastern Cape.
As of April 2013, he’d been hospitalized three times with lung infections in the last four months.
“Doctors are doing everything possible to ensure his well-being and comfort,” said South African President Zuma in a news conference at the time. “He is in good hands.”
Back in June, it was reported that the aging activist had yet again been admitted to a hospital in Johannesburg for critical pneumonia, which is believed to have stemmed from a tuberculosis infection he contracted while in prison.
Nelson Mandela passed away at his home at the grand age of 95.
“He is now resting,” said President Zuma. “He is now at peace.”