Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and an enduring icon of the struggle against racial oppression, died yesterday, December 5.

“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” South African President Jacob Zuma said in a televised address late Thursday night. “His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, his compassion, and his humanity earned him their love.”

Mandela, who was 95, had been battling pneumonia and other lung ailments for months.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of treason by the white minority government, only to forge a peaceful end to white rule by negotiating with his captors after his release in 1990. He led the African National Congress (A.N.C.), long a banned liberation movement, to a resounding electoral victory in 1994, the first fully democratic election in the country’s history.

Mandela served just one term as South Africa’s president and had not been seen in public since 2010, when the nation hosted soccer’s World Cup. But his decades in prison made him a powerful symbol of the struggle to end apartheid, the country’s brutal system of racial segregation. And his insistence on forgiveness instead of vengeance resonated the world over as an example of peaceful resolution in even the most bitter conflicts.

“His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to,” President Barack Obama said after learning of Mandela’s death. At the White House, the U.S. flag was flown at half staff to mourn Mandela’s passing.

Cows and Mud Huts

Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a tiny village of cows, corn, and mud huts. His given name, he enjoyed pointing out, translates colloquially as “troublemaker.” He received his more familiar English name, Nelson, from a teacher when he began school at age 7.

In 1941, Mandela fled to Soweto, a vast black slum near Johannesburg, to avoid an arranged marriage. He worked as a night watchman in the gold mines until Walter Sisulu, the local A.N.C. leader, arranged for him to clerk at a law firm and study for a law degree. In 1961, he became commander of the A.N.C.’s new rebel army and was arrested the next year. Accused under the apartheid system of a conspiracy to overthrow the state, Mandela and eight others were found guilty in 1964 and sentenced to life in prison.

Mandela was 44 years old when he was shackled and put on a ferry to the Robben Island prison, seven miles off the coast of Cape Town. He would be 71 when he was released.

The Roots of Apartheid

The roots of apartheid go back to the late 1600s, when first Dutch, then British, settlers arrived and began dominating and segregating South Africa's native black population. Beginning in the 18th century, a system of “pass laws” segregated and strictly limited the movement of nonwhites, who had to carry passes to enter white areas.

Apartheid began taking on its modern form in 1950, when the ruling Afrikaners, descendants of the original Dutch settlers, enacted laws that forced blacks and “coloreds” (people of mixed race) to live and work in restricted areas, and barred them from owning land outside those areas.

Nonwhites soon found themselves prisoners in their own land. They could not socialize with whites, have a voice in government, or even travel outside their designated areas without government permission. All blacks—who made up 70 percent of the population—had to carry pass books that recorded their movements. Secret police spied on black activists, and arrests, beatings, and even murders of dissidents were commonplace.

At his trial in 1964, Mandela said he was willing to give his life in order to end apartheid.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities,” he told the court. “It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela said he regarded his prison experience as a major factor in his ability to lead a divided nation forward. Prison tempered any desire for vengeance, he said, by exposing him to sympathetic white guards who smuggled in newspapers and extra rations, and to moderates within the National Party government who approached him in hopes of opening a dialogue. Above all, prison taught him to be a master negotiator.

Outpouring of Grief

News of Mandela’s death prompted an outpouring of grief. People of all races gathered outside Mandela’s home in Johannesburg, laying wreaths, singing freedom songs, whispering prayers, and performing the shuffling toyi-toyi dance often used by anti-apartheid protesters.

“He was our father, our mother, our everything,” said Numfundo Matli, 28, a housekeeper who joined the impromptu celebration of Mandela’s life. “What will we do without him?”

In an upscale suburb of Johannesburg, a multiracial group of college students home for the holidays reflected on Mandela’s death.

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” said Kate Reeves, an 18-year-old first-year student at the University of Cape Town. She fought back tears and hugged her friend and college classmate Sandile Makhatho.

“This is the saddest day of my life,” she said. Indeed, the friendship between Reeves, who is white, and Makhatho, who is black, would have been almost impossible in the days before Mandela led the fight to end apartheid. Both are members of the “born free” generation, who never really knew apartheid.

Mankhatho added, “I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for Nelson Mandela.”