But he came to play a much bigger role in his later years, when as a retired president he took a keen interest in the Northern Ireland peace process.
Prior to the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Mr Mandela hosted a conference attended by several of Northern Ireland's political leaders.
The intention was to impart the lessons learned in South Africa, as apartheid came to an end, to unionist and nationalist politicians.
In 2000 on a visit to Dublin he called for courageous leadership and bold action to break the deadlock in Northern Ireland's political process.
"I want to encourage all parties in the Northern Ireland peace process to resolve all matters required for the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement," he said in a speech following his conferral with an honorary degree in Trinity College.
He also held private meetings with senior figures from the Ulster Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Fein.
In 2008 he became Queens University's Centenary Honorary Graduate.
He received an honorary doctorate for distinction in public service from Sir Anthony O'Reilly, then-chief executive of Independent News and Media PLC, which owns the Belfast Telegraph.
Mr Mandela, who could not be in Belfast for the ceremony, recorded a message which was relayed to the audience, saying: "Thank you for the honour bestowed upon us today.
"My grandchildren will be impressed when I can boast I have an honorary doctorate from such an esteemed institution.
"Queen's University Belfast plays a central role in the life of Northern Ireland and is key to its future."
He thanked the student body for naming Mandela Hall after him in the eighties, in opposition to apartheid.
Queen's Chancellor, Senator George Mitchell, described Mandela then as "an inspirational figure and a global statesman whose courage and leadership brought about healing within a nation divided by apartheid."
Sir Anthony O'Reilly said Mr Mandela, a close friend, was "an exceptional human being".
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