President Obama mourned the passing of former South African President Nelson Mandela on Thursday, praising him as a singular figure who stood for freedom and human rights.

“He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages,” Obama said at the White House shortly after Mandela’s death.

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Obama noted Mandela’s journey from prisoner to president, and said his willingness to forgive his jailers “set an example that all humanity should aspire to.”

“He achieved more than could be expected of any man,” the president said.

Mandela’s passing stuck a personal chord with Obama, the nation’s first black president. Obama said the first political action he participated in was an anti-apartheid demonstration.

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“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life,” he said. “The day he was released from prison it gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fear. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set.”

Obama’s only meeting with Mandela came in 2005, when he was still a U.S. senator. The president traveled to South Africa a year later and visited the prison cell on Robben Island where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years in captivity.

Obama returned to South Africa this year for the first time as president and again toured Robben Island. But on both of his visits to the African nation, Mandela was too sick to visit with Obama. Instead, the president met with members of Mandela’s family.

Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.