JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela, who became one of the world’s most beloved statesmen and a colossus of the 20th century when he emerged from 27 years in prison to negotiate an end to white minority rule in South Africa, has died.
South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement at a news conference late Thursday, saying “we’ve lost our greatest son.” Mandela was 95.
Mandela had been a supporter of LGBT rights in South Africa as the policies and practices that he instituted during his presidency have made substantial progress throughout the South African nation.
Mandela’s African National Congress endorsed legal recognition of same-sex marriages, and the interim constitution in 1993 opposed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
These provisions were kept in the new constitution, approved in 1996, due to the lobbying efforts of LGBT South Africans and the support of the African National Congress.
South Africa became the first nation in the world to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in its constitution under his administration.
Two years later, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled in a landmark case that the law prohibiting homosexual conduct between consenting adults in private violated the Constitution.
Mandela eventually turned to fighting AIDS, publicly acknowledging in 2005 that his son, Makgatho, had died of the disease. The nation, which has the most people living with HIV in the world at 5.6 million, still faces stigma and high rates of infection.
Mandela’s death closes the final chapter in South Africa’s struggle to cast off apartheid, leaving the world with indelible memories of a man of astonishing grace and good humor. Rock concerts celebrated his birthday. Hollywood stars glorified him on screen. And his regal bearing, graying hair and raspy voice made him instantly recognizable across the globe.
“Every one of us who continues the fight for equality and civil rights in our own communities labors in the shadows of this man who withstood imprisonment as a consequence of his courageous leadership and grew only stronger, more resolute and more dignified,” said Kevin Cathcart, Executive Director of Lambda Legal, in a statement.
“Nelson Mandela tore down oppression, united a rainbow nation, and always walked arm-in-arm with his LGBT brothers and sisters — and with all people — toward freedom,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. “Though every man, woman and child who seeks justice around the world mourns this loss, his vision of an equal future lives on undimmed.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Mandela “a giant for justice” whose “selfless struggle for human dignity, equality and freedom” inspired many people around the world.
“Nelson Mandela showed what is possible for our world, and within each one of us, if we believe a dream and work together for justice and humanity,” Ban said. “Let us continue each day to be inspired by Nelson Mandela’s lifelong example to keep working for a better and more just world.”
Mandela is survived by his wife Graca Machel, the widowed former first lady of neighboring Mozambique, his daughter Makaziwe by his first marriage, and daughters Zindzi and Zenani by his second.