Nelson Mandela, a South African revolutionary turned prisoner turned international civil rights icon, passed away today at the age of 95, South African President Jacob Zuma announced late Thursday. Unjustly jailed for nearly 30 years during the height of the apartheid movement in his native country of South Africa, he stands alongside pioneer figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi as someone whose positive impact on the human race’s ability to acknowledge basic human freedoms and the central concepts of equality and democracy cannot possibly be underestimated.
Mandela was born into South African royalty in 1918, albeit to a family whose royal status was on the wane as racial tensions grew. Extremely well-educated and supremely cognizant of the growing gulf between the haves and have-nots in his nation (and the racist behavior that fueled this divide), he rose to become an important revolutionary figure during the late ’40s and early ’50s. His influence was becoming so great that the government of the nation unjustly imprisoned him on trumped-up “treason” and “communism” charges multiple times during the ’50s and ’60s, which led to him being jailed as a political prisoner from 1962-1990.
During the course of that time, Mandela’s plight increasingly drew international recognition, so much so that the anti-apartheid movement began to be celebrated in pop culture circles. Artists like Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello directly addressed Mandela in song, while other stand-up musicians like Bono, Peter Gabriel and Little Steven Van Zandt leveraged their fame to take a stand against apartheid.
After decades of growing pressure on the South African government and substantial international sanctions, Mandela was ultimately freed from prison in 1990. His worldwide popularity and sterling reputation enabled him to become President of South Africa in 1994, and spent the last 20-plus years of his life continuing the fight against segregation and for equality.
Mandela had been suffering from health issues for the better part of the last few years, and had been hospitalized since early June due to a lung infection.
[Photo: Getty Images]