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Human rights hero Nelson Mandela dies at 95

Ken Watts | 12/5/2013, 6:10 p.m.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, the beloved champion of human rights who survived 27 years in prison to lead his country out of apartheid, died Thursday at his home in Houghton, a suburb of Johannesburg.

He was 95.

Mandela’s family and a number of close friends gathered at his bedside Wednesday night as South African news media reported that his health was deteriorating. Current President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela’s passing in a televised statement.

“He is now resting. He is now at peace,” Zuma said. “Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”

“What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human,” the president said in his late-night address. “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”

Mandela will have a state funeral at a date to be determined. Zuma ordered all flags in the nation to be flown at half-staff from Friday through the funeral.

President Barack Obama, speaking at the White House, said Mandela was an inspiration to all.

“We have lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good individuals who ever spent time on this earth,” Obama said. “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”

With advancing age and bouts of illness, Mandela retreated to a quiet life at his boyhood home in the nation’s Eastern Cape Province, where he said he was most at peace. He battled health issues in recent months, including a recurring lung infection that led to numerous hospitalizations.

Former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, who knew Mandela well, said he left an indelible imprint on the world.

“He’ll continue to live on in our hearts for helping his country transition from apartheid without violence,” Young said. “He overcame all the hatred and the fear simply by being loving and forgiving, even to the people who persecuted him.”

For decades, Mandela was the leading opponent of apartheid, South Africa’s strictly enforced system of racial separation. Although initially committed to nonviolent protest, in 1961 he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in association with the South African Communist Party, which led a bombing campaign against government targets.

In 1962 he was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mandela served 27 years in prison until an international campaign successfully lobbied for his release in 1990.

After he was freed, Mandela worked with President F.W. de Klerk for a peaceful dismantling of apartheid and was elected South Africa’s first Black president in 1994, serving until 1999. The racial bloodbath that some had predicted would come with the end of apartheid never materialized.

Mandela made two trips to Atlanta, in 1990 and 1993.

His second visit, in July 1993, included public appearances at the King Center, at Cascade United Methodist Church in southwest Atlanta, and at Clark Atlanta University, where he received an honorary degree.

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, District 4, said peaceful change will be Mandela’s legacy.

“What impressed me most about Nelson Mandela was his humble spirit of forgiveness and love towards those who persecuted him,” Johnson said. “Neither angry nor vindictive, and with great courage and dignity, he endured 27 years in prison, sacrificing his liberty for the sake of all South Africans.

“Ultimately, he lived a life of triumph over evil and adversity, leaving the world a better place for his journey amongst us. The spirit of his life will remain in my heart as long as I live.”

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