Mandela had not appeared publicly since 2010 when he attended the World Cup final in Johannesburg, the first held on the African continent. He remained a paragon of dignity and humanism, even as he quietly spent his final years in his childhood home in the nation's Eastern Cape Province.
Born on July 18, 1918, Mandela was eventually expelled from University College of Fort Hare for protesting apartheid, the system that he would ultimately see overthrown. He helped to form the youth league of the National African Congress, pushing for that body to take more radical steps against the white minority South African government. In 1956, he was charged with high treason; following a five-year trial, he was acquited. The ANC's tactics grew more militant over time, a process that he encouraged, and in 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison.
At the trial, he made this statement: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
He would spend 27 years in incarceration before finally being set free.
On February 11th, 1990, Mandela walked out of prison to shouts and applause, his fist raised above his head. He was elected President of South Africa in 1994, promising to serve only one term, which he completed in 1999. Mandela's politics stressed forgiveness over vengeance, and as president he famously established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu was appointed chair to the Commission, which granted individual amnesty in exchange for testimony about apartheid-era crimes.
After retiring from politics, he continued to work on the global stage, championing human rights and world peace, and taking up the fight against AIDS.
His death was announced by South African President Jacob Zuma on late Thursday, who said of him, "What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."