"We have confounded the prophets of doom and achieved a bloodless revolution. We have restored the dignity of every South African," Mandela said shortly before stepping down as president in 1999 at age 80.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born July 18, 1918, the son of a tribal chief in Transkei, one of the future "Bantustans," independent republics set up by the apartheid regime to cement the separation of whites and blacks.
Mandela's royal upbringing gave him a dignified bearing that became his hallmark. Many South Africans of all races would later call him by his clan name, Madiba, as a token of affection and respect.
Growing up at a time when virtually all of Africa was under European colonial rule, Mandela attended Methodist schools before being admitted to the black University of Fort Hare in 1938. He was expelled two years later for his role in a student strike.
He moved to Johannesburg and worked as a policeman at a gold mine, boxed as an amateur heavyweight and studied law.
His first wife, nurse Evelyn Mase, bore him four children. A daughter died in infancy, a son was killed in a car crash in 1970 and another son died of AIDS in 2005. The couple divorced in 1957 and Evelyn died in 2004.
Mandela began his rise through the anti-apartheid movement in 1944, when he helped form the ANC Youth League.
He organized a campaign in 1952 to encourage defiance of laws that segregated schools, marriage, housing and job opportunities. The government retaliated by barring him from attending gatherings and leaving Johannesburg, the first of many "banning" orders he was to endure.
After a two-day nationwide strike was crushed by police, he and a small group of ANC colleagues decided on military action and Mandela pushed to form the movement's guerrilla wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation.