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Nelson Mandela Day – Remembering his devotion to education and equality


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Alison McCarty Photo: Louise Gubb/Corbis Historical/Getty Images

For many of his 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela studied law as a University of London student through distance and flexible learning.

Nelson Mandela

He passed the London Intermediate exams in 1963, but the conditions imposed by the South African authorities prevented him from completing his degree. The former President of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner has received more than 100 awards, including many honorary degrees. On 102nd anniversary of his birth (18 July), we remember Nelson Mandela’s global peacemaking legacy.

Rolihlahla Mandela, later to be given the name Nelson during his primary school years, was born on 18 July 1918 in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, in the village of Mvezo. Nonqaphi Nosekeni, his mother, and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, his father, were deeply engrained in village life. The young boy grew up listening to tales told by his elders and, after hearing stories of his ancestors’ courage in the wars of resistance, he too dreamed of joining the freedom struggle.

When Nelson came of age, he enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare on studies for a Bachelor of Arts degree, but was expelled for participating in a student protest before he could complete his degree. Nelson relocated to Johannesburg, and completed his BA through the University of South Africa, after which he went back to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943.

After taking his articles of clerkship with a firm of attorneys – Witkin, Eidelman and Sidelsky – Nelson took up studies for an LLB at the University of Witwatersrand. Growing tired of the University of Witwatersrand, he took his qualifying examination so that he could begin to practice law. He resumed his LLB studies with the University of London during his imprisonment in 1962. 

During the early 1940s, Nelson became increasingly involved in politics, joining the African National Congress (ANC). In this same year, he married Evelyn Mase. Nelson and Evelyn went on to have two daughters both called Makaziwe, the first of whom died in infancy, and two sons, Madiba Thembekile and Makgatho.

While raising his children, Nelson also rose through the ranks of the ANC. In 1949, the ANC proposed a plan of mass protest, called the Programme of Action, which aimed to secure freedom from dominance of white people over black people and political independence for black South Africans through strikes, boycotts and similar nonviolent actions. This movement laid the groundwork for future active resistance efforts.

August 1952 brought excitement for Nelson. As his two-year diploma in law enabled him to practise law, he and Oliver Tambo, the man who would later become the President of the ANC in 1967, opened South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo.

1952 created greater troubles for Nelson and the freedom struggle. In this year, sporadic nonviolent movements culminated in the Defiance Against Unjust Laws Campaign. Nelson, given the role of National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign, and 19 others were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their part in the movement.

In the final months of 1952, the government banned 52 people, Nelson among them, for defying unjust laws. Nelson continued to participate in the freedom struggle, but was cautious about remaining hidden. Three years later, on 26 June 1955, Mandela watched from a concealed vantage point as the Freedom Charter was adopted by black, Indian and white delegates of South Africa.

Unable to preserve his secrecy for long, Nelson was arrested in December 1955. After sitting in prison for two weeks, Nelson returned home in the final weeks of 1955 to find his home empty. Evelyn and the children were gone.

Although he was freed from prison, Nelson was weighed down under the mounting pressures of his family’s desertion and the increasingly volatile political environment in South Africa. Certain political factions began to splinter away from others in the aftermath of the Freedom Charter, as it became clear that racial harmony was disagreeable to some parties and also the primary goal of others.

Nearly a year after his previous arrest, Nelson awoke to his home being raided by the police on 5 December 1956. He and 155 other Congress leaders were arrested and charged with high treason for their role in crafting the Freedom Charter. The mass arrests led to the Treason Trial, which endured until 1961, when all of the accused were finally acquitted. Nelson married Winnie Madikizela during the trial, in 1958. Together they had two children, Zenani and Zindziswa.

In 1962, once the tribulations of the Treason Trial ended, Nelson secretly left South Africa and travelled to Britain to secure support for the freedom struggle. Upon his return, he was arrested and given a five-year prison sentence. He began his imprisonment at Pretoria Local Prison. When an ANC hideout was raided by the police, Nelson’s charges were elevated and he soon found himself facing sabotage charges in what would later be known as the Rivonia trial.

His speech, delivered from the dock, underlined his deep commitment to the cause: ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

During the trial, Nelson began studying law with the University of London through distance and flexible learning. In the days before the judge was due to pass down sentencing, Nelson was writing papers for his LLB examination.

He revisits this period in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: ‘It might seem odd that I was taking law exams a few days before the verdict. It certainly seemed bizarre to my guards, who said I would not need a law degree where I was going. But I had continued my studies throughout the trial and I wanted to take the examination. I was single-minded about it, and I later realized that it was a way to keep myself from thinking negatively. I knew I would not be practising law again very soon, but I did not want to consider the alternative. I passed the [London Intermediate] exams.’

Nelson was ultimately convicted of sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government, and he was sent to Robben Island to serve life in prison. As he continued his University of London education behind bars, he came to the realisation that it was a ‘mixed blessing’.

He recalls in Long Walk to Freedom:

On the one hand I was assigned the sorts of stimulating books that would not have been on a South African reading list; on the other, the authorities inevitably regarded many of them as unsuitable and thus banned them.

In fact, receiving books at all was often a challenge. Nelson explains:

You might make an application to a South African library for a book on contract law. They would process your request and then send you the book by post. But because of the vagaries of the mail system, the remoteness of the island, and the often deliberate slowness of the censors, the book would reach you after the date that it needed to be returned. If the date had passed, the warders would typically send the book back without even showing it to you.

Nelson Mandela letter

His dedication to education is truly astonishing, when one considers that he was undergoing long, gruelling hours of manual labour each day. Fellow prisoners recall that, when Nelson had free time, he wrote his autobiography in secret. Although the manuscript was discreetly smuggled to London, wardens found several stray pages and banned Nelson from his law education for four years.

This event is also covered in his autobiography, in a surprisingly humorous tone:

When my studies were cancelled, I was still in the midst of pursuing my LL.B. at the University of London. I had started studying for the LL.B. during the Rivonia Trial and the suspension of study privileges for four years would undoubtedly assure me of the university record for the most number of years pursuing that degree.

During his last several years in prison, Nelson was relocated frequently as he battled tuberculosis. He was released Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990, shortly after the ANC had come into better relations with the government. In 1991, he replaced his long-time friend Oliver Tambo as President of the ANC. In 1993, Nelson and President F.W. de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize ‘for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.’

Nelson achieved further success when, on 10 May 1994, he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President. His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was published in this year and provided the adoring public with a deeper understanding of Nelson’s journey to the Presidency. He married his third wife Graça Machel in 1998, and in 1999, in accordance with his beliefs, Nelson stepped down after one term as President.

In 2004, he became the third recipient of the Freedom of the City of Johannesburg award, the highest recognition of a person's contribution to the welfare of the city and its inhabitants. A statue of Nelson was unveiled at the doors of the former Victor Verster Prison, where he served the last of his prison term, in 2008.

Nelson died on 5 December 2013, leaving behind a legacy of devotion to democracy, equality and learning.

Today, more than 15,000 students study on the University of London’s LLB programme through distance and flexible learning. Some of those students are, like Nelson Mandela, incarcerated, and the University of London partners with the African Prisons Project (APP) in Kenya and Uganda to provide them with education in areas such as law, accounting and computing.