Nelson Mandela

University of London


Country of Origin:
South Africa

Study Destination:
United Kingdom

Year of Graduation:
Unable to graduate

Year inducted into Hall of Fame:

Nelson Mandela

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, spent many of his 27 years of imprisonment studying law through the University of London. He passed the London Intermediate exams in 1963, but the conditions imposed by the South African authorities prevented him from completing his degree in the 1960s and 70s. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (1994), Mandela wrote of studying during the Rivonia trial in 1963-4:

“In the days before we were to reconvene, I wrote papers for a set of University of London examinations for my LLB…. I had continued my studies throughout the trial and I wanted to make the examination. I was single-minded about it, and I later realised 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 exams.”

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 and died on 5 December 2013.  He was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was South Africa's first black chief executive, and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation. Politically an African nationalist and democratic socialist, he served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997. Internationally, Mandela was Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999.

Mandela began work on a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Fort Hare, an elite black institution in Alice, Eastern Cape, with around 150 students. There he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman Dutch law in his first year, desiring to become an interpreter or clerk in the Native Affairs Department. He helped found a first-year students' house committee which challenged the dominance of the second-years and at the end of his first year he became involved in a Students' Representative Council (SRC) boycott against the quality of food.  This led to his temporary suspension from the university.  He left the University of Fort Hare without receiving a degree but decided to continue his studies by signing up to the University of South Africa correspondence courses.  He passed his Bachelor degree exams in 1943 and then decided to follow a political path as a lawyer.  He soon after began his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand. Mandela was the only native African student, and though facing racism, he befriended liberal and communist European, Jewish, and Indian students.  He obtained his law degree in 1953 and opened his own law firm.

While living in Johannesburg, he became involved in anti-colonial politics, joining the ANC and becoming a founding member of its Youth League. After the Afrikaner minority government of the National Party established apartheid in 1948, he rose to prominence in the ANC's 1952 Defiance Campaign, was appointed superintendent of the organisation's Transvaal chapter and presided over the 1955 Congress of the People. Working as a lawyer, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and, with the ANC leadership, was unsuccessfully prosecuted in the Treason Trial from 1956 to 1961. Influenced by Marxism, he secretly joined the South African Communist Party (SACP) and sat on its Central Committee. Although initially committed to non-violent protest, in association with the SACP he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, leading a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government. In 1962, he was arrested, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial.

While imprisoned Mandela started correspondence studies for a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of London.

Mandela served 27 years in prison, initially on Robben Island, and later in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. An international campaign lobbied for his release, which was granted in 1990 amid escalating civil strife. Mandela joined negotiations with Nationalist President F. W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections in 1994, in which he led the ANC to victory and became South Africa's first black president. He published his autobiography in 1995. During his tenure in the Government of National Unity he invited other political parties to join the cabinet, and promulgated a new constitution. He also created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses. While continuing the former government's liberal economic policy, his administration also introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty, and expand healthcare services. Internationally, he acted as mediator between Libya and the United Kingdom in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial, and oversaw military intervention in Lesotho. He declined to run for a second term, and was succeeded by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela became an elder statesman, focusing on charitable work in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Mandela was a controversial figure for much of his life. Denounced as a communist terrorist by critics, he nevertheless gained international acclaim for his activism, having received more than 250 honours, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Soviet Order of Lenin. He is held in deep respect within South Africa, where he is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, or as Tata ("Father").  He is often described as the "Father of the Nation".