South African President Jacob Zuma has confirmed to the world that Nelson Mandela, the iconic leader of post-apartheid South Africa, has died at the age of 95.

"Our nation has lost its greatest son, our people has lost its father," Zuma announced in a live broadcast on Thursday evening.

"Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss. His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him their love. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Mandela family. To them we owe a debt of gratitude."

Zuma confirmed Mandela passed away at 8.50pm local time on Thursday, 5 December.

Mandela, who served as president of his country from 1994-99, died in his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton after losing his long battle with a recurring lung infection.

President Zuma said that Mandela will be buried in a state funeral which is likely to take place on Saturday week.

Family and loved ones gathered around the former President in recent days as his heath deteriotated further.

Mandela was receiving medical care at home after being discharged from hospital in September following treatment for a recurring lung infection.

Mandela was reported to be not "doing well" on Thursday but was continuing to put up a courageous fight from his "death bed", his family said.

Mandela was transferred to hospital from his home in Johannesburg in June.

From anti-government bomber to global hero

Mandela, one of the world's most visible public figures, had not appeared in public since South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010.

He is still regarded by many as an inspiration to the people of South Africa, whom he led out of apartheid in the early 1990s.

When the policy of racial segregation was first introduced in 1948, Mandela gained increasing prominence as an opponent of the government and was repeatedly arrested for sedition.

After leading a bombing campaign against government targets in 1961, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was eventually freed in 1990 after serving 27 years, the majority of them on Robben Island.

After release, Mandela rose to president of the ANC and led negotiations with then president FW de Klerk to dismantle the apartheid system and create multiracial elections. These culminated in his election as president.

Although he turned down the opportunity to run for a second term in 1999, Mandela maintained an active international profile through his charity work, much of which was channeled through the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which strives to eradicate the Aids virus.

Mandela received more than 250 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his struggle to create a united South Africa free of racism.