"OUR nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father."
The global statesman who delivered his nation from the dark days of apartheid passed away at home surrounded by family at the age of 95.
The world paused in mourning and respect for the man known in South Africa as Madiba, who endured 27 years in apartheid prisons to guide the nation from bloodshed and turmoil to democracy.
Imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against white minority rule, he emerged determined to use his prestige and charisma to bring down apartheid while avoiding civil war.
He went on to play a prominent role on the world stage as an advocate of human dignity in the face of challenges ranging from political repression to AIDS.
He left public life in June 2004 before his 86th birthday, telling his adoring countrymen: "Don't call me. I'll call you." But he remained one of the world's most revered public figures, combining celebrity sparkle with a message of freedom, respect and human rights.
The country's first black president died late yesterday evening after suffering a series of lung infections, with his health deteriorating sharply over the past six months.
Tributes immediately poured in from across the world with global leaders admitting they were awed by the compassion and humanity Mr Mandela showed to all he met.
In a televised address last night, Mr Zuma said: "My fellow South Africans, our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation has departed.
"He passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 8.50pm on December 5, 2013.
"He is now resting. He is now at peace. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.
"Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.
"What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."
Mr Mandela is survived by his wife Graca Machel and three of his six children.
The anti-apartheid hero was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 before being elected South Africa's president the following year.
He retired from public life in 2004 and has rarely been seen at official events since, due to health issues.
Mr Mandela had a long history of lung problems and was diagnosed with tuberculosis while in prison on Robben Island in 1980.
He said he contracted the disease as a result of the dampness in his cell.
After almost three decades of incarceration, Mr Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison to cheering crowds on February 11, 1990. Just over three years later, Mr Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president.
One of the most iconic images of his presidency came a year later when South Africa defeated New Zealand in the finals of the Rugby World Cup as Mandela looked on, wearing the Springbok jersey that had for so long been a symbol of apartheid.
Mr Mandela enjoyed a close relationship with Ireland, forged through the support offered to him in his struggle against apartheid here -- ranging from rugby protests to the Dunnes Stores strike by conscientious workers.
From behind bars he had accepted the Freedom of the City of Dublin, and he travelled to Ireland in 1990 to accept it in person.
He also made a high-profile visit here to perform the official opening of the Special Olympics, where U2 frontman Bono described him as "president of everywhere and everyone who loves and fights for freedom".
Last night, Bono told how he has been following the words and directions of Mandela since he was a teenager.
"He has been a forceful presence in my life going back to 1979, when U2 made its first anti-apartheid effort. And he's been a big part of the Irish consciousness even longer than that," he wrote on the 'Time Magazine' website last night.
His was among hundreds of tributes that flowed in for the icon who led South Africa's transition from white minority rule.
President Michael D Higgins described him as "one of the greatest and most heroic leaders the world has ever known".
He said Mr Mandela's "unprecedented courage and dedication" broke down the barriers of apartheid in South Africa and led the nation into a new and democratic age.
"Nelson Mandela will be remembered for all time as one of the greatest and most heroic leaders the world has ever known; a brave campaigner who changed the course of history; and a symbol of hope and inspiration to those who continue to struggle against oppression and domination.
"Lives around the world have been changed forever, and hopes kindled, by his transformational life and enduring legacy," he said.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the mere name Mandela "stirred our conscience and our hearts" as he offered sympathies on behalf of the Government to South Africa.
"Today, a great light has been extinguished. The boy from the Transkei has finished his long walk. His journey transformed not just South Africa, but humanity itself.
"As we mark his passing, we give thanks for the gift of Nelson Mandela. We ask that his spirit continues to inspire, guide and enlighten us as we strive to bring freedom and dignity to the family of man, our brothers and sisters, across the world."
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said Mr Mandela has been a truly global presence, who transformed South Africa.
Mr Gilmore described Mr Mandela as "a great friend to Ireland".
"The world is a poorer place for Nelson Mandela's passing today, but a far richer and better place thanks to his life."
"It was a truly memorable occasion to see how a strife torn country reinvented itself under his leadership as the Rainbow Nation. His moral authority was evident, not least in his forgiveness of his former guards and his valuing diversity in all aspects of the new South Africa," she said.
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said: "Mandela's life story encapsulates the triumph of human spirit and perseverance. He will be remembered as one of the giants of 20th-century world history and his leadership and courage were central to the destruction of the apartheid state.
Former South African ambassador to Ireland, Melanie Verwoerd, told of her fondest memories of her country's beloved 'Madiba', the man she considers a father and a leader who is truly irreplaceable.
"There's huge sadness in South Africa and it will be there for a long, long time," she said.
Mr Mandela was born in 1918 and joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, as a law student, to campaign against apartheid.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994. He stepped down after five years in office.
After leaving office, he became South Africa's highest-profile ambassador, campaigning against HIV/Aids and helping to secure his country's right to host World Cup 2010.
Mr Mandela is believed to have asked to be buried on a hillside overlooking the home he built in his childhood village of Qunu after he was released from prison, along with the three of his six children who have already died.