Nelson Mandela, the liberator of South Africa, died "peacefully" at his Johannesburg home on Thursday evening, aged 95, South African President Jacob Zuma said in a public address.

"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," said Zuma of the anti-apartheid icon.

Mandela, who was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994 and served one term as president before stepping down, was hospitalized in June for a lung infection. He was released to intense home care in September.

"His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, his compassion, and his humanity earned him their love," said Zuma in an address from the capital Pretoria carried on all public television stations and radio channels.

"Let us reaffirm his vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another," said Zuma, adding: "This is indeed the moment of our deepest sorrow."

Zuma, using Mandela's clan name, called for a "determination to live as Madiba has lived, to strive as Madiba has strived and to not rest until we have realised his vision of a truly united South Africa, a peaceful and prosperous Africa, and a better world."

"Our nation has lost its greatest son. Yet, what made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves. And in him we saw so much of ourselves."

Mandela was jailed by the apartheid regime for 27 years, including years of hard labor which weakened his lungs and eyes.

At his trial, Mandela insisted his struggle against apartheid was a fight for a just South Africa without racism, where blacks and whites would live together as people with equal rights.

Upon release from prison in 1990 he sought reconciliation in the nation divided by decades of colonialism, racism and conflict.

He won the first democratic elections in 1994 and served for five years. He largely retired from public life in 2004 and was last seen in public in 2010.

"Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together, and it is together that we will bid him farewell," said Zuma, announcing that the icon would be awarded a state funeral, with all flags to fly at half-mast.

He is survived by his wife Graca Machel, his former wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, children, grand-children and great grand-children.