By Ian Swanson and Rebecca Shabad - 12/05/13 04:48 PM EST
Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary who became the first black South African president after 27 years in prison, died Thursday at the age of 95.
Mandela died in Johannesburg, current President Jacob Zuma announced there just before midnight on Friday.
“What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves. And in him, we saw so much of ourselves,” Zuma said.
Mandela has suffered from poor health for a year, with reports that he was near death circulating last Christmas.
But the African leader known worldwide as a symbol against oppression had repeatedly battled back from illness.
Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's president in May 1994. He served one term, and stepped down in 1999.
Mandela twice spoke to joint sessions of Congress, months after his release from prison in 1990 and four years later, after he had been elected president.
The first address marked only the third time a private citizen had addressed a joint session. Mandela joined Polish civil rights leader Lech Wałęsa and the Marquis de Lafayette.
President Obama described Mandela as one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings who had ever lived in comments from the White House press room just minutes after the news of Mandela's death.
Mandela was "a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice," Obama said.
Decades after his release from prison, Mandela is deeply revered in the U.S. and internationally for bringing about a largely peaceful transformation of South Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and since leaving office has largely dedicated his life to humanitarian and charitable work, including efforts to thwart the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa.
Yet for much of his life he was a deeply controversial figure in the U.S. for his backing of violence to end apartheid.
Mandela and the African National Congress political party remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008, a state of affairs then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described as "embarrassing" at the time.
The restrictions meant that Mandela had to get a special certification from the U.S. secretary of state that he is not a terrorist in order to enter the United Sates.
The U.S. for years was an ally of South Africa's government, and Congress only imposed sanctions in 1986, overriding the veto of then-President Reagan.
Press accounts of his 1990 address mention crowded galleries, and say Mandela was given a hero's welcome by Republicans and Democrats alike.
"Marvelous," Wyoming Sen. Alan K. Simpson, then the Republican whip, told Mandela as they shook hands, according to The Los Angeles Times's report on the speech.
"To be there, to see him, to have him thank members of the Congressional Black Caucus, makes my lifetime in politics worthwhile," Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said at the time.
A handful of members boycotted the address, however, citing Mandela's support for terrorists or communists.
They included Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who had opposed sanctions against South Africa, and Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-Calif.), who said the invitation for Mandela to address Congress was a "national disgrace."
In the speech, Mandela said black South Africans fighting apartheid had been inspired by U.S. leaders and the civil rights movement, mentioning George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Martin Luther King Jr., among others.
"The day may not be far when we will borrow the words of Thomas Jefferson and speak of the will of the South African nation in the exercise of that will by this united nation of black and white people," he said.
Mandela's health had been deteriorating for more than a year, and he was too sick to meet with Obama during his June visit to South Africa.
Obama, who did meet with Mandela in 2004, compared the South African seen as the father of his country to George Washington.
"Mandela shows what was possible when a priority is placed on human dignity, respect for law, that all people are treated equally," Obama said in comments in South Africa on June 29.
"George Washington is admired because after two terms he said 'Enough, I'm going back to being a citizen,' " Obama said. "And Mandela similarly was able to recognize that, despite how revered he was, that part of this transition process was greater than one person."
—This story was updated at 5:36 p.m.