JOHANNESBURG -- Nelson Mandela, who became one of the world's most beloved statesmen and a colossus of the 20th century when he emerged from 27 years in prison to negotiate an end to white minority rule in South Africa, has died. He was 95.
South African president Jacob Zuma made the announcement at a news conference late Thursday, saying, "We've lost our greatest son."
Mandela's death closed the final chapter in South Africa's struggle to cast off apartheid, leaving the world with indelible memories of a man of astonishing grace and good humor. Rock concerts celebrated his birthday. Hollywood stars glorified him on screen. And his regal bearing, graying hair and raspy voice made him instantly recognizable across the globe.
President Barack Obama said the world lost an influential, courageous and "profoundly good" man with Mandela's death.
Speaking from the White House, Obama said Mandela "no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages."
"I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life," he continued. "And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set."
Obama met with Mandela's family earlier this year when he visited South Africa. But he did not meet with the ailing leader, who was hospitalized throughout the U.S. president's visit.
As South Africa's first black president, the ex-boxer, lawyer and prisoner No. 46664 paved the way to racial reconciliation with well-chosen gestures of forgiveness. He lunched with the prosecutor who sent him to jail, sang the apartheid-era Afrikaans anthem at his inauguration, and traveled hundreds of miles to have tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister at the time he was imprisoned.
Sport was a major part of Mandela's public life.
His most memorable gesture came when he strode onto the field before the 1995 Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg. When he came on the field in South African colors to congratulate the victorious South African team, he brought the overwhelmingly white crowd of 63,000 to its feet, chanting "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!"
For he had marched headlong into a bastion of white Afrikanerdom -- the temple of South African rugby -- and made its followers feel they belonged in the new South Africa.
Mandela also helped seal his country's bid to become the first in Africa to host a World Cup.
Tragically, he kept a low profile during the 2010 World Cup after his great-granddaughter was killed in an automobile accident following a concert to kick off the opening night of the event.
After much anticipation and speculation that he would remain absent as his family continued to mourn the 13-year-old Zenani Mandela, he attended the World Cup's closing ceremonies amid a thunderous mix of vuvuzelas and roars from the crowd.
"Sport has the power to change the world," Mandela once said. "...It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers."