Mandela helped South Africa break the practice of racial segregation and do away with white minority rule.
Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against apartheid, he was freed in 1990 and quickly set about working to unite the nation through forgiveness and reconciliation.
"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison," Mandela said.
His rejection of vengeance led him to assume roles that led from freedom fighter to prisoner to a world symbol of the struggle against racial oppression.
And, four years after he left prison, he became the nation's first black president, cementing his place in the consciousness of the nation and the world.