Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically-elected president after decades of apartheid rule, has died, South African president Jacob Zuma says. He was 95.

“He passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20:50 on the fifth of December 2013,” Zuma said on national TV. “He is now resting. He’s now at peace. Our nation has lost his greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”

The health of Mandela, who was freed from prison in 1990 and became president in 1994, had deteriorated in recent months after being hospitalized a fourth time since last December.

Reaction to his death from world leaders was swift. Prime Minister Stephen Harper tweeted, “All of Canada mourns with the family of Nelson Mandela and the citizens of South Africa. The world has lost one of its great moral leaders.”

“It is hard to imagine how much poorer the world would be, were we not to have been blessed by the power of the life of Mandela — the teacher of his people, a model for leadership everywhere.”

Mulroney hosted Mandela’s first visit to Canada in June 1990 and set up a $5-million fund to help relocate South African exiles.

In the United States, President Barack Obama said, “He achieved more than can be expected of any man. Today he’s gone home. We’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings…He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”

Obama said he was among millions who drew inspiration from Mandela’s life and said his first political action was to protest against apartheid.

“The day 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,” Obama said.

Overseas, British Prime Minister David Cameron posted on Twitter, “A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time. I’ve asked for the flag at No10 to be flown at half mast.”

Born in 1918 to the Thembu royal family, Mandela studied law and moved to Johannesburg where he became a part of the anti-colonial movement.

In 1961 he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe and led a bombing campaign against government targets. The next year Mandela was arrested and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.

He served 27 years in prison before an international campaign lobbying for his release was successful in February 1990.

His release was broadcast live around the world and would become a quintessential moment in the end of apartheid.

Mandela was married three times, had six children and 17 grandchildren.

 

“A precious light has gone out in the world,” former prime minister Brian Mulroney said in a statement. “Mila and I join with Graca Machel, his devoted family, and the millions who loved him in every corner of our world, in mourning this giant of our times.