Born July 18, 1918, son of a counselor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people near Qunu in what is now the Eastern Cape. He is widely known in South Africa by his clan name, Madiba.
Caption: Portrait of South African political leader Nelson Mandela between 1945 and 1960, wearing the traditional outfit of the Thembu tribe.
1940s - Mandela devoted his life to the fight against white domination, leaving Fort Hare university in the early 1940s before completing his studies. He founded the ANC Youth League with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.
Caption: Nelson Mandela (3rd from right), leader of the African National Congress (ANC), Patrick Molaoa and Robert Resha charged with treason by the South-African Union walked to the room where their trial was being held, Drill Hall, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Mandela was among the first to advocate armed resistance to apartheid, going underground in 1961 to form the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation). Charged with capital offences in the 1963 Rivonia Trial, his statement from the dock was his political testimony.
"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Caption: The South African political leader Nelson Mandela giving a speech before the African Congress.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.
Caption: Eight men, among them anti-apartheid leader and member of the African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela, sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial leave the Palace of Justice in Pretoria 16 June, 1964, with their fists raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison car. The eight men were accused of conspiracy, sabotage and treason.
1960s - 1970s
Mandela spent nearly two decades as a prisoner on Robben Island, a barren lump of rock that sits in shark-infested waters off the coast of Cape Town and served as the apartheid government's main jail for political opponents. During his incarceration, Mandela largely faded from the public imagination in South Africa, although his then-wife Winnie kept the ANC torch alight throughout the late 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1980s, he became the focus of the international anti-apartheid movement, and the "Free Nelson Mandela" slogan started to seep back into South Africa despite heavy censorship and curbs on political movements.
The demonstration for liberty of Nelson Mandela in Paris, France on June 1, 1986.
F.W. de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, finally lifted the ban on the ANC and other liberation movements on February 2, 1990, and Mandela walked free from jail nine days later, an event beamed live around the world.
Leader of National Party F.W. de Klerk at press briefing during private visit to Windhoek, Namibia.
A year later he was elected president of the ANC and in May 1994 was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president.
He used his prestige and status to push for reconciliation between whites and blacks, setting up a Commission led by Archbiship Desmond Tutu to probe crimes committed by both sides in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Caption: President Nelson Mandela of South Africa celebrates his historic election win at the ANC victory party on May 2, 1994, at Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa.
South Africa shared the pain of Mandela's humiliating divorce in 1996 from Winnie Mandela, his second wife, and watched his courtship of Graca Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, whom he married on in July 1998.
Caption: Winnie Mandela (c), then-wife of African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, and then-head of the ANC social welfare department, announces 15 April, 1992, in Johannesburg to journalists that she resigned from her position in the wake of the collapse of her marriage with the ANC leader and renewed allegation of her involvement in townships killings. At right, her lawyer, Ismael Ayob.
In 1999, he handed over to younger leaders he saw as better equipped to manage a fast-growing, rapidly modernizing economy - a rare example of an African leader voluntarily departing from power.
Caption: South African President Nelson Mandela (C) flanked by deputy presidents Thabo Mbeki (R) & F.W. de Klerk.
In 2007 Mandela celebrated his 89th birthday by launching an international group of elder statesmen, including fellow Nobel peace laureates Tutu and Jimmy Carter, to tackle world problems including climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty.
Caption: Former South African President Nelson Mandela, left, is helped to his feet by his wife Graca, unseen left, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, right, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, center, after the launch of 'The Elders,' in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday, July 18, 2007.
Mandela made his last appearance at a mass event in July 2010 at the final of the soccer World Cup. He received a thunderous ovation from the 90,000 at the Soccer City stadium in Soweto.
He was hospitalized for nearly a week in January 2011 in Johannesburg with respiratory problems.
The icon celebrated his 94th birthday in July 2012.
Caption: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with former South Africa President Nelson Mandela, 94, and his wife Graca Machel at his home in Qunu, South Africa, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012.