Why was Nelson Mandela important?

Last updated at 05:51
Nelson Mandela wavingGetty Images

It's 100 years since Nelson Mandela, one of history's most inspirational figures, was born.

He became his country's first black president after spending 27 years in jail and is held up as one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.

Mr Mandela died in 2013, aged 95.

Newsround explains why he is held in such high regard.

Why was Nelson Mandela important?
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WATCH: A look back at Nelson Mandela's life (December 2013)

When Nelson Mandela was a young man, white and black people in South Africa lived separate lives under a system called apartheid.

White people, who were a small part of the population, were in charge of the country.

It was illegal for black people to use the same schools, hospitals, and even beaches as white people. Conditions in whites-only schools and hospitals were much better.

Apartheid
Sign reading 'waiting room for colored only'Getty Images

Black people were also denied basic rights - like being allowed to vote in elections.

But Nelson Mandela believed that everybody should be treated equally.

Mandela joined a political party called the African National Congress (ANC) and later co-founded the ANC Youth League, leading protests against apartheid.

Prison

The prison cell that Nelson Mandela occupied on Robben Island.
This was Mandela's prison cell - now a museum.

Sometimes the demonstrations turned violent and in 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island.

While Mandela was in prison photos of him were banned and it was even illegal to quote him in public.

But people from all over the world campaigned for his release. Songs were written and big concerts were held in protest.

Freedom

Mandela news articleAFP/Getty Images
Thousands of people gathered to celebrate his freedom

Finally in 1990 the South African President FW de Klerk - a white man - allowed him to go free.

Mandela had spent 27 years in jail and was greeted as a hero on his release.

Mandela is famous for promoting a message of forgiveness and equality.

Apartheid was abolished in 1991, and three years later South Africa held its first elections in which black people, as well as white, were allowed to vote.

Presidency & Peace
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WATCH: BBC reporter Nomsa Maseko remembers Mandela's release

Nelson Mandela was elected President and set about trying to bring people of different races together.

In 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize - the highest honour of its kind - for his work.

In 1995 South Africa held its first major sports competition, the Rugby World Cup.

Mandela gave his support to the South African team, made up mostly of white men, which helped to unite the country.

Queen and Nelson MandelaWIREFOTO
The Queen and Nelson Mandela met several times

He became one of the world's most popular leaders, with politicians and celebrities queuing up to have their photo taken with him.

Even though Nelson Mandela helped to change South Africa into a fairer place, the country still has lots of problems today, including poverty, violent crime and disease.

But he'll be remembered around the world for his message of peace and unity.