Nelson Mandela, the civil rights leader who rose from a small village in rural, apartheid-era South Africa to become the country's first black President, died on Thursday at age 95. Mandela's election in 1994 ended three centuries of European domination of indigenous African people of the region.
Mandela, pictured here in 2006, had been released from prison in 1990 after serving 27 years for his attempts to overthrow the white minority government in the 1960s. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and other honors for his leadership of the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa.
When Mandela arrived at the Cape Town City Hall after his release, a crowd of 50,000 supporters had assembled to hear his first words in public in over a quarter century. "Our struggle has reached a decisive moment," he said, in an event broadcast around the world. "Our march to freedom is irreversible."
The lawyer and anti-apartheid activist had been convicted of treason and sabotage in June 1964 and sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent most of his sentence on Robben Island, off Cape Town, doing hard labor. During the 1980s he refused many offers for early release from the government because of the conditions attached.
But on February 2, 1990, South African President F. W. de Klerk reversed the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-apartheid organizations, announcing that Mandela would be released. It was the beginning of the opening up of apartheid-era South Africa, in which blacks faced severe discrimination.
In the first national elections in which blacks had the right to vote, the ANC won and Mandela became President. He remained in that office until 1999.