JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nelson Mandela, who emerged from more than a quarter of a century in prison to steer a troubled African nation to its first multiracial democracy, uniting the country by reaching out to fearful whites and becoming a revered symbol of racial reconciliation around the world, died at his home Thursday. He was 95.
His death from recurring lung infections—the legacy of tuberculosis contracted in prison during his long fight against oppression-- was announced by South African president Jacob Zuma, who said: "Our nation has lost its greatest son."
Mandela had been admitted to a Pretoria hospital in June for the fifth time in two years. Three months later he was sent home, where family members said he lived in a sterilized bedroom set up as an intensive care unit, with round-the-clock medical care.
Long before his release from prison in 1990, at age 71, Mandela was an inspiration to millions of blacks seeking to end the oppression of more than four decades of apartheid, and his continued incarceration spawned international censure of South Africa's white-minority government.
Successive white South African leaders had portrayed him as a dangerous terrorist. But when Mandela was freed, after 27 years, he surprised many by saying he bore no ill will toward his white Afrikaner jailers.
Preaching reconciliation, he guided the nation through four years of on-again, off-again constitutional talks, using his moral authority to address the demands of an impatient black majority while, at the same time, winning over suspicious whites.
Mandela and the man who released him, President Frederik W. de Klerk, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. A year later, Mandela, the son of a tribal chief, succeeded De Klerk after a historic, peaceful election, the images of which were seared into the memory of a global audience: millions of blacks cast the first votes of their lifetimes.
Under Mandela the economy grew, a constitution guaranteeing equality and press freedom took root, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission unearthed many dark secrets of apartheid and granted amnesty to both whites and blacks accused of political violence.
During his five-year term in office, Mandela's formal dignity and his skill in building consensus made him a rarity on a continent plagued by corrupt dictators. Although his strongest supporters were deeply distrustful of whites, who controlled much of the country's economy, Mandela made a determined — and largely successful — effort to ease white fears.
As his term drew to a close, he decided not to stand for reelection in 1999 and voluntarily stepped aside — a move almost unheard of among African leaders. His party, the African National Congress, again won the national elections and chose Mandela's vice president, Thabo Mbeki, as his successor.
After leaving the government, Mandela's worldwide stature continued to grow. He became active in the fight against AIDS; a son died of the disease in 2005. He also traveled widely in support of human rights and efforts to end poverty and spoke out vehemently against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In 2004, at age 85, Mandela announced his retirement from public life.
Mandela's given name, Rolihlahla, literally means "tree shaker," or "troublemaker," in the Xhosa language. He was named Nelson by his teacher on the first day of school, but most South Africans, including those closest to him, called him simply Madiba, the name of his clan and a term of affection and respect.
Mandela, an intensely private person, sometimes chafed at the saint-like celebrity that cloaked him late in life.
"In real life we deal not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous," he wrote in a letter to his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, from prison in 1979.
As a leader of the African National Congress, or ANC, Mandela was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, which used state violence and repressive laws to segregate and oppress South Africa's black majority.
Blacks and "Colored," or mixed race, people were forced to live in restricted areas and could not move freely without passes. Black mini-nations, known as "homelands" or "bantustans," were set up in rural areas with few natural resources or amenities. Blacks got a separate, limited education, with a restricted number of places in black universities.
More than 20,000 people died in civil and political strife under apartheid, and thousands more were jailed or tortured. In the years after Mandela was banished to Robben Island, a penal colony in frigid waters off the coast of Cape Town, the nation faced anarchy, while international economic and cultural sanctions made Africa's richest and most powerful country a global pariah.
In 1985, Mandela wrote to the National Party government from prison, seeking talks on a negotiated settlement to the crisis. Then-President Pieter W. Botha offered to free Mandela if the ANC agreed to lay down its arms. Mandela replied in a message to his daughter, Zindzi, who read it to a crowd gathered in the black township of Soweto.
"I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom," read Mandela's message, the first words from him after more than 20 years in prison. "I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.