JOHANNESBURG - Nelson Mandela guided South Africa from the shackles of apartheid to multi-racial democracy, as an icon of peace and reconciliation who came to embody the struggle for justice around the world.
Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against white minority rule, Mandela emerged determined to use his prestige and charisma to bring down apartheid while avoiding a civil war.
"The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come," Mandela said in his acceptance speech on becoming South Africa's first black president in 1994.
"We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation."
In 1993, Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, an honour he shared with F.W. de Klerk, the white Afrikaner leader who freed him from prison three years earlier and negotiated the end of apartheid.
Mandela went on to play a prominent role on the world stage as an advocate of human dignity in the face of challenges ranging from political repression to AIDS.
He formally left public life in June 2004 before his 86th birthday, telling his adoring countrymen: "Don't call me. I'll call you". But he remained one of the world's most revered public figures, combining celebrity sparkle with an unwavering message of freedom, respect and human rights.
Whether defending himself at his own treason trial in 1963 or addressing world leaders years later as a greying elder statesman, he radiated an image of moral rectitude expressed in measured tones, often leavened by a mischievous humour.
"He is at the epicentre of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are," Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer and Nobel Laureate for Literature, once remarked.
Mandela's years behind bars made him the world's most celebrated political prisoner and a leader of mythic stature for millions of black South Africans and other oppressed people far beyond his country's borders.
Charged with capital offences in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, his statement from the dock was his political testimony.