Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 into the Madiba tribal clan - part of the Thembu people - in a small village in the eastern Cape of South Africa.
He joined the African National Congress in 1943, first as an activist, then as the founder and president of the ANC Youth League.
Mandela campaigned tirelessly against apartheid, the system devised by the all-white National Party which oppressed the black majority.
In 1956, Mandela was charged with high treason, along with 155 other activists, but the charges against him were dropped after a four-year trial. However, in the winter of 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison.
The world community tightened the sanctions first imposed on South Africa in 1967 against the apartheid regime. The pressure produced results, and in 1990, President FW de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, and Mr Mandela was released from prison.
In December 1993, Mandela and Mr de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Five months later, for the first time in South Africa's history, all races voted in democratic elections and Mr Mandela was elected president.
Nelson Mandela gave up the presidency of the ANC in December 1997 and since his retirement he has continued travelling the world, meeting leaders, attending conferences and collecting awards.