By LYDIA POLGREEN
JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and an enduring icon of the struggle against racial oppression, died on Thursday, the government announced, leaving the nation without its moral center at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the country’s leaders.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” President Jacob Zuma said in a televised address on Thursday night, adding that Mr. Mandela had died at 8:50 p.m. local time. “His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him their love.”
Mr Zuma called Mr. Mandela’s death “the moment of our deepest sorrow,” and said that South Africa’s thoughts were now with the former president’s family. “They have sacrificed much and endured much so that our people could be free,” he said.
Mr. Mandela spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of treason by the white minority government, only to forge a peaceful end to white rule by negotiating with his captors after his release in 1990. He led the African National Congress, long a banned liberation movement, to a resounding electoral victory in 1994, the first fully democratic election in the country’s history.
Mr. Mandela, who was 95, served just one term as South Africa’s president and had not been seen in public since 2010, when the nation hosted the soccer World Cup. But his decades in prison and his insistence on forgiveness over vengeance made him a potent symbol of the struggle to end this country’s brutally codified system of racial domination, and of the power of peaceful resolution in even the most intractable conflicts.
Years after he retreated from public life, his name still resonated as an emblem of his effort to transcend decades of racial division and create what South Africans called a Rainbow Nation.
“His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that everyone should aspire to,” a grim-faced President Obama said Thursday evening, describing Mr. Mandela as an “influential, courageous and profoundly good” man who inspired millions — including himself — to a spirit of reconciliation.
Mr. Mandela and Mr. Obama both served as the first black leaders of their nations and both men won the Nobel Peace Prize. But the American president has regularly shied away from comparisons, often noting that his own sacrifices would never compare to the ones that Mr. Mandela endured.
Mr. Obama said that the world would “not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” and he noted that the former South African president had once said that he was “not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Mr. Mandela’s death comes during a period of deep unease and painful self-examination for South Africa.
In the past year and a half, the country has faced perhaps its most serious unrest since the end of apartheid, provoked by a wave of wildcat strikes by angry miners, a deadly response on the part of the police, a messy leadership struggle within the A.N.C. and the deepening fissures between South Africa’s rulers and its impoverished masses.
Scandals over corruption involving senior members of the party have fed a broader perception that Mr. Mandela’s near saintly legacy from the years of struggle has been eroded by a more recent scramble for self-enrichment among a newer elite.
After spending decades in penurious exile, many political figures returned to find themselves at the center of a grab for power and money. Mr. Zuma himself was charged with corruption before rising to the presidency in 2009, though the charges were dropped on largely technical grounds. He has faced renewed scrutiny in the past year over $27 million spent in renovations to his house in rural Zululand.
Graphic cellphone videos of police officers abusing people they have detained have further fueled anger at a government seen increasingly out of touch with the lives of ordinary South Africans.
Mr. Mandela served as president from 1994 to 1999, stepping aside to allow his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, to run and take the reins. Mr. Mandela spent his early retirement years focused on charitable causes for children and later speaking out about AIDS, which has killed millions of Africans, including his son Makgatho, who died in 2005.
Mr. Mandela retreated from public life in 2004 at the age of 85, largely withdrawing to his homes in the upscale Johannesburg suburb of Houghton and his ancestral village in the Eastern Cape, Qunu.