Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela Reuters

Former South African president Nelson Mandela died on Thursday, the country’s current President Jacob Zuma has announced. He was 95.

The former president battled health issues in recent years, including a recurring lung infection that led to numerous hospitalizations.

Mandela’s defiance of white-minority rule and his incarceration for fighting against segregation focused the world's attention on South Africa's apartheid system, making him a symbol of the struggle for racial equality.

In 1993, Mandela and then-South African President F.W. de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The iconic leader was elected the nation's first black president a year later, serving only one term, as he had promised.

Even as he has faded from the spotlight, he remains popular and is considered a hero of democracy in the nation. Last year, South Africa launched a new batch of banknotes with a picture of a smiling Mandela on the front.

Mandela's impact extends far beyond South African borders. After he left office, he mediated conflicts in Africa and the Middle East.

He previously criticized the U.S. through Israel, hinting in 2003 that then- President George W. Bush had no foresight because “Their friend Israel has got weapons of mass destruction, but because it’s their ally they won’t ask the UN to get rid of it. They just want the oil.”

Mandela also said once that “if the Palestinians are not free, no one is free”, a statement which anti-Israel groups have taken advantage of to accuse Israel of applying a policy of “apartheid” towards Arabs.

Court documents filed this past summer claimed Mandela was “in a vegetative state” following his last hospitalization, but the South African government denied this.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Thursday night that Mandela “was one of the greatest figures of our time.”

“He was the father of his nation, a visionary, a freedom fighter who opposed violence. He set a personal example to his people during his long years in prison. He worked to heal the rifts within South African society and succeeded with his personality in preventing outbreaks of racist hatred. He will be remembered as the father of the new South Africa and, first and foremost, as a moral leader," said Netanyahu.

President Shimon Peres said following Mandela’s death, "The world has lost a leader of stature who changed the course of history. On behalf of myself and all the citizens of Israel we are mourning together with all the countries in the world and with the citizens of South Africa who have lost a great leader."

He added, “Nelson Mandela was a fighter of human rights who left his mark in the fight against racism and discrimination and was a strong advocate of democracy, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and above a builder of bridges of peace and dialogue who paid a high personal price while sitting for long years in prison and fighting against discrimination and racism. The legacy of Nelson Mandela and his people will always be engraved in history and in the hearts of all those whose lives he touched.”

United States President Barack Obama issued a statement following Mandela's death, saying, “We have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us -- he belongs to the ages.”

Obama added, “I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.”