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Associated Press
Nelson Mandela, the first post-apartheid president of South Africa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who spent 27 years a political prisoner, died Thursday. He was 95.
Nelson Mandela: 7/18/1918 – 12/5/2013

S. Africa's 'greatest son' dies

Nelson Mandela, the former political prisoner who became the first president of a post-apartheid South Africa and whose heroic life and towering moral stature made him one of history's most influential statesmen, died Thursday, the government announced. He was 95.

The death was announced in a televised address by President Jacob Zuma, who added, "we've lost our greatest son." No cause was provided.

To a country torn apart by racial divisions, Mandela became its most potent symbol of national unity, using the power of forgiveness and reconciliation to heal deep-rooted wounds and usher in a new era of peace after decades of conflict between blacks and whites. To a continent rife with leaders who cling to power for life, Mandela became a role model for democracy, stepping down from the presidency after one term and holding out the promise of a new Africa.

And to a world roiled by war, poverty and oppression, Mandela became its conscience, fighting to overcome some of its most vexing problems. He was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent 27 years in prison as part of his lifelong struggle against racial oppression.

Throughout this moral and political fight, Mandela evoked a steely resolve, discipline and quiet dignity, coupled with a trademark big, charismatic smile. He ultimately carried them into office as South Africa's first democratically elected and black president.

His victory capped decades of epic struggle by the African National Congress and other liberation groups against South Africa's brutal white rulers, first under British colonialism and then under a white-run system called apartheid, or racial separation.

On the historic day of his inauguration – May 10, 1994 – Mandela stood at the podium near South Africa's last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk. A year earlier, they shared the Nobel Prize for what the Nobel committee called "their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new, democratic South Africa."

"We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation," Mandela, then 75, declared as the new president. "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another … the sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement."

Only a few years before, the 20th century's most celebrated political prisoner had been dubbed a terrorist by the conservative governments in the United States and Britain under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, respectively.

In the decades following Mandela's release from prison in 1990, many South Africans of all races referred to him reverentially as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name.

For all his achievements, Mandela will also be remembered as slow to react to the HIV/AIDS epidemic that began sweeping South Africa on his watch. It was not until 1998, four years into his presidency, that he directly addressed the South African public about the disease. Later, he would acknowledge that he did not recognize the severity of the epidemic.

After he left office in 1999, Mandela devoted substantial energy and resources to raising awareness of the epidemic. In 2002, he publicly criticized his successor, Thabo Mbeki, for delays in implementing a plan to fight HIV/AIDS.

In 2005, the epidemic hit home. A somber Mandela announced the death of his son, Makatho Mandela, 54, who had AIDS.

Mandela's years as president also were characterized by his estrangement from his wife, Winnie Mandela.

At the same time, he had to address the insecurities and animosities of the white minority that had lost political power but still controlled South Africa's economy, military and bureaucracy.

The Afrikaners, descendants of 17th-century Dutch and French settlers, were especially traumatized by the transition to black rule, and their control of the military posed a potential threat to the democracy in the early years of Mandela's presidency.

Though institutional policies were put in place to deal with white fears – such as a sunset clause allowing white civil servants and soldiers to stay in their jobs as long as they wanted – Mandela also used his powers of persuasion to disarm opponents, defuse threats and charm detractors.

Under Mandela's leadership, South Africa slowly began eradicating racism from its legal canon, governmental institutions and school textbooks. A new Constitutional Court was inaugurated in 1995 as the highest court in the land. Among its early rulings was the abolition of the death penalty.

In 1996, parliament approved a new national constitution, including a bill of rights guaranteeing protections most South Africans had never imagined. For instance, South Africa was the first nation in the world to enshrine the protection of the rights of gays in its constitution.

That same year, Mandela launched the country's Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

Mandela sought to bridge the lingering divides between blacks and whites in other ways, too. When South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he encouraged blacks to support the much-hated Springboks, the national rugby team that was widely seen by blacks as a totem of white rule.

When the Springboks won a riveting final over New Zealand, Mandela wore a Springbok shirt and presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar. The gesture was widely viewed as a major step toward racial reconciliation.

For all his strengths and bottomless energy, Mandela faced a seemingly impossible task as president: In a nation where millions of people still lived in shacks, where non-whites had been purposefully impoverished and undereducated, he had to meet the expectations and hopes of the teeming masses who had propelled him to high office.

Today, millions of South Africans still live in deep poverty, without running water or electricity. Whites still largely control the economy.

Mandela understood that he would perhaps never see the South Africa he had envisioned the day he stepped out of prison, but he sought until his last days to achieve that vision.

"When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and oppressor both," Mandela wrote on the last page of his memoir, "A Long Walk to Freedom." "The truth is that we are not yet free. … We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

To view a photo gallery of Mandela remembered around the world, click here.

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