Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first Black president and an enduring icon of the struggle against racial oppression, died Thursday December 5, 2013 at the age of 95.
He led the African National Congress, long a banned liberation movement, to a resounding electoral victory in 1994, the first fully democratic election in the country’s history.
Mr. Mandela served just one term as South Africa’s president and had not been seen in public since 2010, when the nation hosted the soccer World Cup. But his decades in prison and his insistence on forgiveness over vengeance made him a potent symbol of the struggle to end this country’s brutally codified system of racial domination, and of the power of peaceful resolution in even the most intractable conflicts.
The South African government issued an official announcement of Mandela’s passing, as current President Jacob Zuma appeared in a televised address late Thursday night. Mr. Mandela died at 8:50 p.m. South African local time and Zuma referred to Mandela’s death as “the moment of our deepest sorrow”
Read full transcript of Zuma’s announcement HERE
Years after Mandela retreated from public life, his name still resonated as an emblem of his effort to transcend decades of racial division and create what South Africans called a Rainbow Nation.
“His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to,” a grim President Obama said Thursday evening, describing Mr. Mandela as an “influential, courageous and profoundly good” man who inspired millions — including himself — to a spirit of reconciliation.
Read the full transcript of Obama’s speech here.
Both Mandela and Obama both served as the first black leaders of their nations, and both men won the Nobel Peace Prize. But Obama has often shied away from comparisons, often noting that his own sacrifices would never compare to the ones that Mandela endured.
In his speech, Obama noted that the world would “not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” and he states that the former South African president had once said that he was “not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
While there was no announcement of the specific cause of Mandela’s death, reports are that he had been battling pneumonia and other lung ailments for the past six months, and had been in and out of the hospital.
“Nelson Mandela, there is no one like you,” they sang, stamping their feet in unison to a praise song usually sung in joy. But in the midnight darkness, sadness tinged the melody.
“He was our father, our mother, our everything,” said Numfundo Matli, 28, a housekeeper who joined the impromptu celebration of Mr. Mandela’s life. “What will we do without him?”
Nelson Mandela’s death comes during a period of deep unease and painful self-examination for South Africa.