Nelson Mandela is one of the world's most revered statesmen, who led the struggle to replace the apartheid regime of South Africa with a multi-racial democracy.
Jailed for 27 years, he emerged in 1990 to become the country's first black president four years later and to play a leading role in the drive for peace in other spheres of conflict.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
His charisma, self-deprecating sense of humour and lack of bitterness over his harsh treatment, as well as his amazing life story, partly explain his extraordinary global appeal.
Since stepping down as president in 1999, Mr Mandela has become South Africa's highest-profile ambassador, campaigning against HIV/Aids and helping to secure his country's right to host the 2010 football World Cup.
Mr Mandela - who has had a series of health problems in recent years - was also involved in peace negotiations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and other countries in Africa and elsewhere.
In 2004, at the age of 85, Mr Mandela retired from public life to spend more time with his family and friends and engage in "quiet reflection".
"Don't call me, I'll call you," he warned anyone thinking of inviting him to future engagements.
The former president has made few public appearances since largely retiring from public life.
In November 2010, his office released photos of a meeting he had held with members of the US and South African football teams.
He has been treated in hospital several times in the past two years.
In late January 2011 he was admitted to a Johannesburg hospital for "specialised tests" with the South African presidency reminding a concerned nation that Mr Mandela has had "previous respiratory infections".
While in jail on Robben Island in the 1980s, the former president contracted tuberculosis.
In early 2012 he was treated for what the president's office said was "a long-standing abdominal complaint".
But in recent months he has been troubled repeatedly by a lung infection.
Raised by royalty
He was born in 1918 into the Xhosa-speaking Thembu people in a small village in the eastern Cape of South Africa. In South Africa, he is often called by his clan name - "Madiba".
Mr Mandela set up South Africa's first black law firm with Oliver Tambo
Born Rolihlahla Dalibhunga, he was given his English name, Nelson, by a teacher at his school.
His father, a counsellor to the Thembu royal family, died when Nelson Mandela was nine, and he was placed in the care of the acting regent of the Thembu people, chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo.
In 1941, aged 23, he ran away from an arranged marriage and went to Johannesburg.
Two years later, he enrolled for a law degree at the mainly white Witswaterand University, where he met people from all races and backgrounds. He was exposed to liberal, radical and Africanist thought, as well as racism and discrimination, which fuelled his passion for politics.
The same year, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and later co-founded the ANC Youth League.
He married his first wife, Evelyn Mase, in 1944. They were divorced in 1958 after having four children.
Mr Mandela qualified as a lawyer and in 1952 opened a law practice in Johannesburg with his partner, Oliver Tambo.
Together, Mr Mandela and Mr Tambo campaigned against apartheid, the system devised by the all-white National Party which oppressed the black majority.
In 1956, Mr Mandela was charged with high treason, along with 155 other activists, but the charges against him were dropped after a four-year trial.
Resistance to apartheid grew, mainly against the new Pass Laws, which dictated where black people were allowed to live and work.
In 1958, Mr Mandela married Winnie Madikizela, who was later to take an active role in the campaign to free her husband from prison.
The ANC was outlawed in 1960 and Mr Mandela went underground.
Tension with the apartheid regime grew, and soared to new heights in 1960 when 69 black people were shot dead by police in the Sharpeville massacre.
This marked the end of peaceful resistance and Mr Mandela, already national vice-president of the ANC, launched a campaign of economic sabotage.
He was eventually arrested and charged with sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government.
Speaking from the dock in the Rivonia court room, Mr Mandela used the stand to convey his beliefs about democracy, freedom and equality.
"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities," he said.
"It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
In the winter of 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison.
In the space of 12 months between 1968 and 1969, Mr Mandela's mother died and his eldest son was killed in a car crash but he was not allowed to attend the funerals.
He remained in prison on Robben Island for 18 years before being transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland in 1982.
As Mr Mandela and other ANC leaders languished in prison or lived in exile, the youths of South Africa's black townships did their best to fight white minority rule.
Hundreds were killed and thousands were injured before the schoolchildren's uprising was crushed.
In 1980, the ANC led by the exiled Mr Tambo, launched an international campaign against apartheid but ingeniously decided to focus it on one cause and one person - the demand to release Mr Mandela.
This culminated in the 1988 concert at Wembley stadium in London when some 72,000 people - and millions more watching on TV around the world - sang "Free Nelson Mandela".
Popular pressure led world leaders to tighten 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. Mr Mandela was released from prison and talks on forming a new multi-racial democracy for South Africa began.
In 1992 Mr Mandela separated from his wife, Winnie, on the grounds of her adultery. She had also been convicted on charges of kidnapping and accessory to assault.
In December 1993, Mr 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 overwhelmingly elected president.
Mr Mandela's greatest problem as president was the housing shortage for the poor, and slum townships continued to blight major cities.
He entrusted his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, with the day-to-day business of the government, while he concentrated on the ceremonial duties of a leader, building a new international image of South Africa.
In that context, he succeeded in persuading the country's multinational corporations to remain and invest in South Africa.
On his 80th birthday, Nelson Mandela married Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique.
He continued travelling the world, meeting leaders, attending conferences and collecting awards after stepping down as president.
After his official retirement, his public appearances were mostly connected with the work of the Mandela Foundation, a charitable fund that he founded.
On his 89th birthday, he formed The Elders, a group of leading world figures, to offer their expertise and guidance "to tackle some of the world's toughest problems".
Possibly his most noteworthy intervention of recent years came early in 2005, following the death of his surviving son, Makgatho.
At a time when taboos still surrounded the Aids epidemic, Mr Mandela announced that his son had died of Aids, and urged South Africans to talk about Aids " to make it appear like a normal illness".
He also played a key role in the decision to let South Africa host the 2010 football World Cup and appeared at the closing ceremony.
The first South African banknotes featuring his face went into circulation in November 2012.
Mandela's key dates
- 1918 - Born in the Eastern Cape
- 1944 - Joined African National Congress
- 1956 - Charged with high treason, but charges dropped
- 1962 - Arrested, convicted of sabotage, sentenced to five years in prison
- 1964 - Charged again, sentenced to life
- 1990 - Freed from prison
- 1993 - Wins Nobel Peace Prize
- 1994 - Elected first black president
- 1999 - Steps down as leader
- 2001 - Diagnosed with prostate cancer
- 2004 - Retires from public life
- 2005 - Announces his son has died of an HIV/Aids-related illness
- 2007 - Forms The Elders group
- 2010 - Appears at closing ceremony of World Cup
Source: BBC Africa