Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid crusader and international icon for the power of peaceful protests to effect social change, has died, South African President Jacob Zuma said Thursday.

Mandela was 95 years old.

"This is the moment of our deepest sorrow," Zuma said in announcing the news. "Our nation has lost its greatest son."

Mandela spent 27 years in prison, convicted of treason by the colonial government. Following his release in 1990, he led South Africa to democracy and became, in 1994, the nation's first black president.

Mandela, following his release from prison. (AP Photo/Greg English)

Though Mandela served as president for only five years, his prison sentence and willingness to forge a peaceful resolution to the nation's deep racial and economic strife earned him international acclaim. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.

Yet since retiring from public life, his health gradually declined. He was dogged by a recurring lung infection, and admitted to the hospital earlier this year in critical but stable condition.

In a brief, personal statement, President Obama said Mandela had "transformed South Africa and moved all of us" and "set an example that all humanity should aspire to."

"I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life," he added, noting that his first political action — cited in his memoirs as a turning point in his life — was protesting apartheid.

Related: Remembering Nelson Mandela — a tribute in photos and prose