South African President Jacob Zuma has called on his nation's people to turn their sorrow at the death of Nelson Mandela into a determination to realize the anti-apartheid leader's "vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another."

"[This] is, indeed, the moment of our deepest sorrow," Zuma said Thursday while announcing Mandela's death on national TV.

'Our nation has lost its greatest son; our people have lost a father.'— Jacob Zuma, South Africa's president

"Yet it must also be the moment of our greatest determination, a determination to live as Madiba has lived, to strive as he has strived and to not rest until we have realized his vision of a truly united South Africa, a peaceful and prosperous Africa and a better world." 

Zuma reminded South Africans of how their country's history and transformation from an apartheid state into a democratic nation is closely bound with the man "who, more than any other, came to embody their sense of a common nationhood."

"Our nation has lost its greatest son; our people have lost a father," Zuma said of Mandela, who was the country's first black president and whose release from prison on Feb. 11, 1990, marked the beginning of the end of apartheid .

Millions identified with Mandela's cause

The president recalled Mandela's humility, compassion, and humanity, affectionately referring to him several times as Madiba, the name of the clan to which Mandela's family belonged that became a term of respect for the leader, who served as South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999.

'We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.'— South African President Jacob Zuma

"What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human," Zuma told the nation. "We saw in him what we seek in ourselves, and in him, we saw so much of ourselves."

He talked of the sacrifices made not just by Mandela, who served 27 years in prison, but many members of his family for the struggle to rid the country of the oppressive system of racial segregation under which South Africans lived for most of the latter half of the 20th century. Zuma acknowledged the enormous influence he had on "millions of people across the world who embraced Madiba as their own and who saw his cause as their cause."

Zuma said that while many people around the world had been anxiously watching Mandela's health deteriorate over the past year, his passing was no less deeply felt. Mandela was hospitalized several times in the past year for recurring lung and respiratory problems, some of which had their origins in the harsh conditions of his imprisonment.

Mandela-Zuma

People in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton listen to South African President Jacob Zuma's address to the nation, announcing the death of Nelson Mandela, on the radio. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

​"Although we knew this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss," he said.

The president told the nation that flags would remain at half-mast from Friday until after Mandela's state funeral. Zuma urged South Africans to express, each in their own way, the "deep gratitude we feel for a life spent in service of the people of this country and in the cause of humanity."

"Let us commit ourselves to strive together — sparing neither strength nor courage — to build a united, non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa," Zuma urged the nation.