Conversation Starter: Who Was Nelson Mandela?

Updated: May 15, 2019
Find out how Nelson Mandela helped end apartheid in South Africa.
Statue of Nelson Mandela

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” (Nelson Mandela)

What makes someone a hero? Perhaps it’s a person who saves another or even a brilliant sportsperson? Sometimes it’s someone who stands up for what is right even if it seems hard or they could get into trouble, such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr who stood up for racial equality and helped make the United States a fairer nation.

Nelson Mandela was a South African hero who lived from 1918 – 2013. He’s famous for his hard work to change the apartheid law which the South African government upheld from 1948 until 1994. This law was very unfair because it said that non-white South Africans were not allowed to be friends with or marry a white person, do the same jobs, use the same facilities, or go to the same schools as white people, and black South Africans had to move to a reservation.

Holding Hands

So What Did Nelson Mandela Do?

Nelson and his college friend Oliver Tambo set up a law firm which helped poor people who had been treated unfairly. Later on, Nelson led groups which worked against the government. Sometimes he hid from the police or disguised himself as a chauffeur, chef, or gardener! But when he was caught, he was sent to jail for almost thirty years, where he had to do exhausting physical work and was rarely allowed a visitor. But this didn’t stop him! When the government offered him a deal, telling him he could go free if he promised to stop working for equal laws, he said “no,” even though it meant staying in prison.

South Africans of all colors continued to campaign against apartheid and the world learned about Nelson Mandela. More and more people and entire countries told South Africa to change the law and free Nelson Mandela. He was finally released in 1990 and became South Africa’s first black president a few years later when apartheid ended. Today he’s remembered for his great courage and for never giving up.

Nelson Means “Troublemaker”

The name “Nelson” was actually given to him by his school teacher. Nelson’s real name was ‘Rolihlahla’ which kind of means ‘troublemaker’ - though in this case, it turned out to be a good thing he lived up to his first name! 

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This article and its images were first published on, a website that helps parents to explain the world to kids, to inspire them to make a difference and to raise true global citizens.