In a televised address, President Jacob Zuma said Mandela died Thursday evening, saying South Africa and the whole world has lost a great son and liberation icon.
A visibly distraught Zuma said, “My fellow South Africans our beloved Nelson Mandela founding person of our nation has departed.
“He passed on peacefully around 20:15 on the 5th of December 2013. He is now resting. He is now at peace. Our people have lost a father.”
"Although we knew this day was going to come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss. His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, passion and humanity, earned him their love," he said.
"Our thoughts are with the millions of people across the world who embraced Madiba as their own and who saw his cause as their cause. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Yet 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," said President Zuma.
Zuma said Mandela would receive a full state funeral. He ordered flags to be flown at half mast.
Mandela, one of the most respected African leaders, spent 27 years in jail for challenging the then Africanist regime's political system of apartheid or separate development.
The news came as no surprise - Mandela had been in and out of hospital for much of this year, and the 95 year old had lived a challenging and stressful life.
Nelson Mandela was once a young firebrand leader of the then-banned African National Congress, which opposed the racist, white-led apartheid regime. Mandela led the group’s armed wing, an act that landed him in prison for 27 years.
Those were his, and South Africa’s, darkest days. But the charismatic Mandela managed to keep his resolve and lead his struggle from his jail cell. He emerged triumphant, having helped bring down apartheid and being elected president in the nation’s first all-inclusive elections in 1994.
He served one presidential term, but it is for his lifelong struggle that he will be remembered - as a fighter and a prisoner turned statesman and peacemaker.
Mandela was the first black South African president who served only one term after spending 27 years at Robben Island.
In his condolence message, U.S President Barack Obama said Mandela achieved more than could be expected of any man. “Today, he has gone home. And 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.”
President Obama said through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us.
“His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings - and countries - can change for the better. His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or our own personal lives.
"And the fact that he did it all with grace and good humor, and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections, only makes the man that much more remarkable. As he once said, 'Iam not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying'.”
Mr. Obama said he is one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life.
The U.S president said his very first political action, “the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears.
“And like so many around the globe, 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.”
He further said, "We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice."
At the same time, United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon said the world has been robbed of a fighter for justice. “I am saddened by the death of Mandela who was a giant fighter for justice and freedom,” he said.