By 3 News online staff
Former South African president Nelson Mandela has died, aged 95. His death was announced by current president Jacob Zuma at a media conference late on Thursday night, local time.
"Our nation has lost its greatest son", Zuma said as he announced Mandela's peaceful passing at his home in Johannesburg on Thursday December 5.
"What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.
"Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together and it is together that we will bid him farewell.
"May his soul rest in peace, God bless Africa."
Mandela had been in ill health for some years. He was hospitalised in Pretoria on June 8 with a recurring lung infection. His condition was initially described as serious but stable, but declined to critical on June 23. He was discharged from hospital on September 1 and continued to receive intensive care at home.
The anti-apartheid hero's health had been declining for two years and he had been hospitalised four times since December 2012. He was hospitalised in March this year and then again in June with the same lung infection.
On September 1, Mandela was discharged and was being cared for at home by 22 doctors. In November his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela told the Sunday Independent newspaper Mandela remained unable to speak, but was relaxed.
From state prisoner to state president
Mandela's life was a journey guided by one goal – democracy for South Africa – a nation where for too long too few ruled too many.
Born in 1918, Mandela qualified as a lawyer before joining the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944.
The ANC was formed to fight for the rights and freedoms of Africans, many of whom were forced off their land by the government.
The party was outlawed in 1960 and four years later Mandela was charged with high treason.
Facing the death penalty, he appealed to the judge in a speech which came to symbolise the struggle for equality.
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination," he said in his defence statement during the Rivonia Trial. "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, a sentence he began at Robben Island. He was confined to a small cell with the floor as his bed and a bucket as a toilet. He was allowed only one visitor a year.
Mandela later said of his time behind bars: "In prison you come face to face with time, there is nothing more terrifying."
In 1990, facing increased sanctions against the apartheid regime, South Africa's president F W de Klerk made a surprise announcement that Mandela would be released.
Ten days later, with his second wife Winnie by his side, Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison after 27 years locked away. The images were broadcast around the world.
Mandela resumed leadership of the ANC and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
In South Africa’s first multi-racial elections a year later, he became the country's first black president.
Mandela made his only visit to New Zealand in 1995 while serving as president.
He was welcomed on to Turangawaewae Marae where he spoke of the common bond between Maori and black South Africans.
As he left, Mandela asked one young girl to "tell all the kids in New Zealand that I love them".
Mandela stepped down as President of South Africa in 1999. He went on to work as the country's highest profile ambassador, helping to raise awareness of poverty and disease.
When his son died of AIDS, he didn't shy away from the spotlight.
"Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it," he said.
But the public appearances took their toll and in 2004, aged 85, Mandela announced he was retiring from public life.
"Don't call me - I'll call you," he quipped.
Even in retirement, Mandela united his country. His birthday was declared "Mandela Day" by the United Nations and on July 18 every year, at his request, the people of South Africa carry out acts of kindness for their community.
Mandela's legacy is the ideal he was prepared to die for - a free and democratic society for all.
AT A GLANCE: Key events in Mandela's life
READ MORE: Politicians pay tribute to Mandela