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SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images
Nelson Mandela once said, "When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw."
The revered South African statesman, who spent 27 years in prison for treason before becoming the apartheid-torn country's first black president in 1994, died Thursday at his home after being in failing health for some time.
South African President Jacob Zuma announced his passing in a televised address. Mandela's last formal public appearance during the 2010 World Cup when his country played host. He had most recently been hospitalized in Pretoria in June for a recurring lung infection, his fifth time in two years.
"Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss," Zuma said. "Our thoughts are with the South African people who today mourn the loss of the one person who, more than any other, came to embody their sense of a common nationhood. Our thoughts are with the millions of people across the world who embraced Madiba as their own, and who saw his cause as their cause."
President Barack Obama immediately spoke to reporters about the death of his fellow leader, who was also one of his political heroes.
"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony...Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal and he made it real," said the commander in chief. "He achieved more than could be expected for any man and today he's gone home."
"We have lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings...He belongs to the ages."
Zuma encouraged the citizens of South Africa to conduct themselves with dignity and respect as they go about mourning Mandela, as the late political and cultural icon would have wanted.
"Nelson Mandela's unwavering courage, forgiveness and hope touched and inspired people all around the world," read a statement release by Michael Elliott, CEO of Bono's One Foundation.
"He showed that we can make change happen and that the dream of a fair society is possible. In an extraordinary 2005 speech in London, Mandela challenged us to fight poverty, injustice and gross inequality and said, "Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom." The finest honor that we could offer to his memory is to be that generation."
Mandela, who has been portrayed on screens big and small by the likes of Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman and, most recently, Idris Elba and who ultimately amassed an agent's Rolodex worth of close Hollywood friends, was born July 18, 1918, in what was then South Africa's Cape Province, in the Umtatu village of Mvezo.
His father was a tribal chief and his given name, Rolihlahla, translated into "troublemaker" in their Xhosa language—obviously rather perfect for the future revolutionary and peacemaker, who became a global symbol of moral authority upon his release from prison in 1990.
He and his presidential successor, Frederik W. deKlerk, received the Liberty Medal from then-United States President Bill Clinton and shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their efforts to end South Africa's deep-seated tradition of racial segregation and subjugation known as apartheid.
"Today the world has lost one of its most important leaders and one of its finest human beings," Clinton said in a statement. "And Hillary, Chelsea and I have lost a true friend. History will remember Nelson Mandela as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation.
"We will remember him as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life...All of us are living in a better world because of the life that Madiba lived," Clinton continued, invoking Mandela's Xhosa clan name, used as a show of familiar endearment.
"He proved that there is freedom in forgiving, that a big heart is better than a closed mind, and that life's real victories must be shared."
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It was an all-white government that convicted Mandela of treason in 1962 for his involvement with the revoluationary African National Congress liberation movement and shipped him off to prison for what was intended to be a life sentence. His history of respiratory illness stemmed from tuberculosis he contracted in 1988.
"Rosalynn and I are deeply saddened by the death of Nelson Mandela," former U.S. president turned humanitarian activist Jimmy Carter said in a statement.
"The people of South Africa and human rights advocates around the world have lost a great leader. His passion for freedom and justice created new hope for generations of oppressed people worldwide, and because of him, South Africa is today one of the world's leading democracies. In recent years, I was gratified to be able to work with him through The Elders to encourage resolution of conflicts and advance social justice and human rights in many nations. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family at this difficult time."
AP Photo/Denis Farrell
Former President George W. Bush said in a statement: "Laura and I join the people of South Africa and the world in celebrating the life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. President Mandela was one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time. He bore his burdens with dignity and grace, and our world is better off because of his example. This good man will be missed, but his contributions will live on forever. Laura and I send our heartfelt sympathy to President Mandela's family and to the citizens of the nation he loved."
Mandela, who was married three times, is survived by wife Graça Machel and a number of children, grandchildren and great-granchildren.
He and second wife Winnie Mandela, whom he was married to throughout his prison term, divorced in 1996. Mandela married Machel, the widow of a former president of Mozambique, on his 80th birthday.
A state funeral will be held for the fallen leader. Flags have been ordered to fly at half-mast on Friday throughout South Africa and remain so until after Mandela is laid to rest.