Reports of the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s failing health circulated during the day as relatives and friends gathered at his death bed.
Born July 18, 1918 as Rolihlahla Dalibhunga, the son of the chief counselor to the Thembu chief in southeast South Africa. He was given the name Nelson by a schoolteacher and adopted Mandela from his grandfather, a descendant of the Thembu royal house.
He left elite Fort Hare University College after a student protest, then ran away from home to avoid an arranged marriage and went to Johannesburg.
In 1943 he joined the African National Congress, the leading organization that championed the rights of South Africa’s black majority, and co-founded its youth league.
The election victory of the all-white National Party in the country’s 1948 elections — in which only whites could vote — put Mandela on a collision course with the party’s notorious segregation policy known as apartheid.
In 1952 he and lifelong friend and ally Oliver Tambo opened the first black law practice in Johannesburg.
They helped launch the ANC’s Defiance Campaign, which urged South Africans to resist unjust laws.
Mandela, known as Madiba, his traditional clan name, by supporters, was charged with treason along with 156 other activists in 1956 but the charges were dropped after a four-year trial.
However, in 1960 after the ANC was banned and the government killed 67 prosecutors in what became known as the Sharpeville massacre, Mandela went underground to wage economic sabotage against the regime.
He was captured in 1962 and while serving a five-year sentence at hard labor, is charged with trying to overthrow the government. In a celebrated courtroom speech he said:
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. . . if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
After he was sentenced to life in prison, Tambo made his plight — “Free Nelson Mandela” — the focus of an international campaign against apartheid.
With the help of international sanctions, opponents forced South Africa’s government to lift the ban on the ANC in 1990 and free Mandela.
At age 71 he walked out of prison with his fist held high.
Mandela celebrated his release with a world tour, which included welcomes in the US by President George H.W. Bush and Congress and in Britain by Queen Elizabeth.
As president of the ANC he led negotiations to steer the country towards democracy and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with South African president F.W. de Klerk, who had begun dismantling apartheid.
In 1994 he was elected South Africa’s president in the first national elections in which all races could vote.
He took several steps to symbolize reconciliation, including having tea with the widow of the architect of apartheid in 1995.
After one term, he stepped down as president in 1999 and left the ANC in firm control of the nation’s future and devoted himself to humanitarian projects, including fighting AIDS, and to diplomatic missions.
He was credited with helping to convince Libya to turn over two suspects in the Lockerbie airplane bombing.
Mandela was married three times, most recently in 1998 to Gracie Machel, the widow of Mozambique’s president Samora Machel, whom he wed on his 80th birthday.
In 2005 he announced that one of his six children, Makgatho, had died of AIDS.
Mandela battled ailments in later years, including prostate cancer, lung infections and gall stones.
In his last public appearance he was seen waving from the back of a golf cart before the final of the soccer World Cup in Johannesburg in July 2010.