Nelson Mandela, who became South Africa's first black president after serving 27 years in prison in the 1990s died on Thursday.

South African President Jacob Zuma announced on South African television on Dec. 5 Mandela has "departed." He shared the news during a live press conference that began about 8.45am AEDT.

"This is the moment of our deepest sorrow, our nation has lost its greatest son," Zuma said, according to Sydney Morning Herald. "Fellow South Africans, our beloved Nelson Rohlihla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation, has departed."

"What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves," Mr Zuma said. "Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together and it is together that we will bid him farewell."

Zuma ordered flags be flown at half mast until Mandela's state funeral,

Mandela was discharged from a Pretoria hospital in September after being hospitalized for three months from a lung infection.

New York Daily News reported on Wednesday that Mandela was on his "deathbed" and there was a large gathering of his family members by his side.

His daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, told the press at the bedside gathering she could still feel his "fighting spirit."

"Tata is still with us, strong, courageous," she told state-owned television network SABC, using an affectionate nickname. "Even, for a lack of a better word ... on his 'deathbed,' he is teaching us lessons; lessons in patience, in love, lessons of tolerance.

"Every moment I get with him I'm amazed," she continued. "There are times where I have to pinch myself that I come from this man who is a fighter even though you can see he is struggling, but fighting spirit is still there with him."

Mandela 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.