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Human rights icon Nelson Mandela dies at age 95 | VIDEO

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nelson Mandela, often called the “father of the nation” in post-apartheid South Africa, died today after a long illness. He was 95.

The elder statesman of South Africa had been gravely ill for some time, and his extended family had rallied to his bedside at his home.

“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” President Jacob Zuma said in a televised address on Thursday night. “His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him our love.”

U.S. President Barack Obama immediately reacted with an impromptu news conference, and appeared deeply saddened by the news.

"I am one of countless millions who drew inspiration from Mandela's life," Obama said. He said the world has "lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings.

Mandela rose from political prisoner for 27 years during the white minority rule of the apartheid era to his election as president of South Africa, a post he held from May 10, 1994 to June 14, 1999. During that time, as the first black South African to hold the nation’s top office, Mandela and his government dismantled the last vestiges of apartheid, shepherded a multiracial transformation of institutions, and pushed for national reconciliation.

In 1993, Mandela and F.W. de Klerk were selected as co-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to abolish apartheid.

After retiring from politics, Mandela founded the Nelson Mandela Foundation, focusing on AIDS work and human rights, and fighting poverty.

Born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, Transkei, South Africa, Mandela was a Xhosa who was born into the Thembu royal family. He earned a law degree from the University of South Africa in 1942. Although a schoolteacher gave him his name of “Nelson,” many in South Africa still call him Madiba, his traditional clan name.

Melanie Nathan, an LGBT and human-rights activist from San Francisco who occasionally contributes articles to San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, is a native of South Africa and earned her law degree at the same university that Mandela attended. She paid tribute to Mandela for insisting that all citizens of South Africa were treated equally.

"At 95, we could not have hoped for much longer a life on this Earth, but we still need him. And we always will. Even though his political days were well behind him, his presence prevailed as a beacon of continued hope for a country that still suffers on so many levels,” Nathan said of Mandela.

“I will remember Madiba, Nelson Mandela, as much more than a leader behind the demise of that insidious apartheid, but also as a worldwide icon for democracy and peace, who insisted that never again would any group of South African be excluded from the dignity of full equality. And so he ensured that the new South African Constitution specifically included sexual orientation and gender identity into its protections for all South Africans,” she said.

In 2006, South Africa legalized same-gender marriage. Click HERE for a full review of LGBT rights in South Africa. Click HERE for Nelson Mandela Fast Facts compiled by CNN.

Lambda Legal officials issued a statement about Mandela's impact.

"Lambda Legal joins others around the world in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, one of the 20th century's giants in the struggle for justice and human dignity. 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, Lambda Legal executive director.

"As South Africa's first elected black president, he led the people of his country toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Under his leadership, the new constitution of South Africa included explicit prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation - a degree of legal protection that LGBT people still do not have in the United States.

"We offer our sympathies to Mr. Mandela's family and loved ones, to the people of South Africa, and to freedom fighters around the world. In honor of his memory, we continue the work of securing justice and dignity for all," he said.

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, noted Mandela's human-rights vision was inclusionary.

“Mandela’s all-embracing vision of human rights compelled him to stand up for equality for ethnic minorities, LGBTI people and individuals with disabilities, among others. It was a special honor for American Jewish World Service to support 24 organizations in South Africa that worked tirelessly to ensure that Mandela’s vision of a just society would become a reality for the new South Africa. We will always remember him and all that he did for the people of South Africa and to shape a vision of a world united by respect for human rights,” she said.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, called Mandela a visionary.

“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. Though every man, woman and child who seeks justice around the world mourns this loss, his vision of an equal future lives on undimmed,” Griffin said.

Andre Banks, executive director and co-founder of All Out, talked about Mandela's legacy.

"We are deeply saddened to hear about Nelson Mandela’s passing. Yet, we are hopeful his legacy of tolerance and mutual respect will live on for generations," Banks said. “As All Out continues to work with partners throughout Africa to free those who are oppressed and imprisoned for who they are and who they love, we will be inspired by Nelson Mandela’s story and words.”

In San Diego, Interim Mayor Todd Gloria paid tribute to Mandela.

“Nelson Mandela’s resilience – and his relentless dedication to the principles of justice and human rights – have served as an inspiration to people around the world," Gloria said. "Let’s mourn his passing but also celebrate his extraordinary life and his indelible contributions to humankind.”

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN and GLBTNN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.

Further reading

To read The New York Times' obituary, click HERE.

VIDEO: South African president's message to the world

VIDEO: President Obama's remarks