nelson-mandela-1*South Africa’s first black president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95.

“We’ve lost our greatest son,” said President Jacob Zuma, who announced the news via the South African Broadcasting Corporation on Thursday afternoon.

Mandela spent almost three months in a Pretoria hospital after being admitted in June with a recurring lung infection. The liberation struggle icon was discharged in September and had been receiving home-based medical attention since then.

Last month, Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was quoted as saying he was no longer talking “because of all the tubes that are in his mouth to clear (fluid from) the lungs.” He has been plagued several times with lung problems over the past three years and was hospitalized at least four times for the condition.

In February 2011, he was briefly hospitalized with a respiratory, infection before being re-hospitalized for a lung infection and gallstone removal in December 2012. After a successful medical procedure in early March 2013, his lung infection recurred, and he was briefly hospitalized in Pretoria. On June 8, 2013, his lung infection worsened, and he was re-hospitalized in Pretoria in a serious condition.

Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie, walking hand in hand, raise clenched fists upon his release from Victor prison, Cape Town, Sunday, February 11, 1990

Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie, walking hand in hand, raise clenched fists upon his release from Victor prison, Cape Town, Sunday, February 11, 1990

The iconic leader — known for his charismatic personality, soft-yet-stirring speeches and charitable work post-politics — spent 27 years behind bars for opposing white rule in his country before becoming South Africa’s first black president in 1994. Though he served only five years in office, Mandela is recognized the world over, often seen as someone with great dignity and moral authority.

While he sought a quiet family life in retirement, he continued to meet with notable dignitaries and celebrities, weigh in international affairs and conflicts, and champion causes in which he believed, including poverty and HIV/AIDS.

At age 85 and amid failing health, he was forced to announce he was “retiring from retirement,” in 2004, retreating from the spotlight as much as possible. His last major public appearance was in 2010, when South Africa hosted the World Cup of Soccer. He was greeted by thunderous applause but made no speech.
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Known for his unyielding optimism, Mandela leaves behind a lasting legacy — with countless parks, schools and squares named in his honor.

His birthday is a public holiday in South Africa, where Mandela is affectionately known by his clan name, Madiba.

For too long known as a political martyr, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in the 1960s for trying to overthrow the pro-apartheid government. He served 27 years of hard labour, mostly at Robben Island, looking forward to his only perk — a 30-minute session with a visitor once a year. While in jail, Mandela unified the prisoners, foreshadowing the leadership skills he would use when he became the country’s first fully-representative democratically elected president.

His release on Feb. 11, 1990 was brought about in part by heavy economic sanctions imposed on South Africa by dozens of countries, including Canada.

As the world watched on television, Mandela walked confidently toward the prison gates, his wife Winnie at his side. A huge throng of reporters and thousands of supporters wait to greet him, a scene he later described as “a happy, if slightly disorienting chaos.”

His next gesture would forever symbolize his struggle. “I raised my right fist and there was a roar,” Mandela recalled.

Watch as President Barack Obama delivers remarks on the passing of Mandela from the White House: