The South African government has never disclosed the full extent of his illness, but reputable news sources revealed that his liver and kidneys were functioning at just 50 percent. South Africans took to the streets of Johannesburg in their droves to mourn former president Nelson Mandela after news of his death broke.
On conviction, he and his fellow defendants escaped the gallows, but were sentenced to life imprisonment.He spent the next 27 years behind bars, 18 of them on the notorious Robben Island, near Cape Town.
The film documenting parts of this struggle, Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, stars Idris Elba as Mandela and Naomie Harris as his former wife Winnie.
In recent years various family members and friends have argued about how best to maintain his legacy. The disputes are now likely to worsen.
His marriage to Winnie had fallen apart after his release and he was now married to Graca Machel, the widowed former first lady of neighboring Mozambique.
He is survived by Machel; his daughter Makaziwe by his first marriage, and daughters Zindzi and Zenani by his second.
While some political commentators have expressed a fear that Mandela’s death could destabilise South Africa by re-opening racial wounds, most South Africans are well used to the idea of his passing.
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Indeed, most serious political analysts in the country recognise that Mr Mandela’s death is unlikely to create a political shockwave.
More significant, they say, may be the fact that without Mandela’s immense moral authority, the ruling ANC party may be more vulnerable to charges of corruption and incompetence.
Mandela, who is generally considered to be ‘the father’ of modern South Africa, has said that his greatest regret has been his failure to have raised his own children.
He married three times. Two wives remain alive: his ex wife Winnie and Graca Machel. He has three remaining children, another four step children, 17 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.
He was born into African aristocracy, a descendant of kings of the Thembu people, in Transkeiin 1918.
His father had four wives, among whom his mother ranked third.
He was the first of his family to attend school, and it was his teacher who gave him the English name Nelson in place of his given name, Rolihlahla.
At 19, he attended Fort Hare University, where he soon became involved in student politics – or rather, in organising a boycott of them.
Rejecting a marriage arranged for him by his tribal elders, he became briefly a mine guard, then was articled to a Johannesburg law firm.
He began living in the Alexandra black township, and started law studies at Witwatersrand University, where he met fellow students and future political activists Ruth First, Joe Slovo and Harry Schwarz.
In the early 1950s, Mandela became deeply involved in radical resistance to apartheid, while he and fellow-activist Oliver Tambo ran a law firm, offering cheap advice to township residents.
Mandela was initially an admirer of India’s Mahatma Gandhi, committed to non-violent resistance. Yet in 1956, he and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason.
NELSON MANDELA: THE ANTI-APARTHEID FIGHTER WHO WENT TO PRISON FOR THE CAUSE
1960 69 peaceful protesters are killed by police in the Sharpeville Massacre; in the aftermath the ANC is banned, prompting Mandela to go into hiding. While in hiding he forms an underground military group with armed resistance.
1962 After living on the run for seventeen months he is arrested on August 5 and imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort. On October 25 he is sentenced to five years in prison but again goes on the run
1964 On June 12 Mandela is captured and convicted of sabotage and treason. He is sentenced to life imprisonment at the age of 46, initially on Robben island where he would be kept for 18 years
1968 His mother dies and his eldest son is killed in a car crash but he is not allowed to attend either of the funerals
1980 The exiled Oliver Tambo launches an international campaign for the release of his friend
1986 Sanctions against South Africa are tightened, costing millions in revenue
1990 On February 11, Nelson Mandela is released from prison after 27 years. He had served the last part of his sentence in Victor Verster Prison in Paarl.
President De Klerk lifts the ban on the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC and the white National Party begin talks on forming a multi-racial democracy for South Africa.
1991 Mandela becomes President of the ANC. The International Olympic Committee lift a 21-year ban on South African athletes competing in the Olympic Games.
1992 He separates from Winnie Mandela after she is convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to assault. The following March they divorce.
1993 Nelson Mandela and Mr de Klerk are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
1994 April 26 Free Elections where black South Africans are allowed to vote for the first time. Nelson Mandela runs for President and the ANC win 252 of the 400 seats in the national assembly
May Mandela is inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa. He appoints de Klerk as deputy president and forms the racially mixed Government of National Unity.
1995 South Africa hosts the 1995 Rugby World Cup and South Africa wins. Nelson Mandela wears a Springbok shirt when he presents the trophy to Afrikaner captain Francois Pienaar. This gesture was seen as a major step in the reconciliation of white and black South Africans.
1998 Marries Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique, on his 80th birthday.
1999 Relinquishes presidency in favour of Thabo Mbeki, who was nominated ANC president in 1997.
2001 Nelson Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer
2004 June: Nelson Mandela announced that he would be retiring from public life at the age of 85
2005 His son, Makgatho Mandela died of AIDS
2010 Mandela makes a rare public appearance at the football World Cup in South Africa
2012 An increasingly frail Mandela is admitted to hospital twice in February and December