Twenty-nine years ago today, on 17 May 1989, while he was incarcerated at Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela graduated in absentia with an LLB from Unisa.
‘Madiba’, as he was affectionately and respectfully known, was the South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. After 27 years in prison and then South Africa’s first black and democratically elected president, he went on to change the course of South Africa’s history and future.
In pursuit of excellence
Madiba continued to study during his imprisonment, completing a Bachelor of Arts degree through Unisa in 1942, after he had previously been expelled from the University of Fort Hare for participating in a student protest. He enrolled for an LLB degree at the University of Witwatersrand, a qualification he would only complete (once again through Unisa) nearly five decades later while in the last years of his imprisonment.
In an interview in the Unisa News of September–December 1994, Madiba spoke of the university’s role in the future of South Africa. “As in the past, and more so now, Unisa has the responsibility of providing society with leaders of quality in all areas of life. Our times demand that both students and lecturers should be searching, critically and independently, in pursuit of excellence. This will enable us to handle the challenges of a changing society.
“Distance education, in a situation in which new vistas have opened up for the majority and where there is great demand for skilled personnel, will become even more important. Unisa therefore has a crucial role to play in this period and in the future. And the requirements of reconstruction and development also dictate that we pay particular attention to those fields of study that will directly contribute to this effort.”
Honoured for excellence
His journey with Unisa strengthened through the years, more so when the university honoured him for the excellence he had shown in leading South Africa. On 16 September 1995, Madiba received an honorary doctorate in law from Unisa.
An equally special privilege Madiba bestowed on Unisa was his consent in 2012 to be a recipient of the Unisa Robben Island Alumnus Award, bestowed by the university on former political prisoners, who, despite great odds, studied, persevered, and completed their qualifications with Unisa while serving prison terms on the island.
As it celebrates its 145th anniversary of shaping futures in the service of humanity and honours the 100thanniversary of the birth of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Unisa remains motivated by Madiba’s inspiring words: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” The university is committed to honouring him and his legacy by continuing to provide access to quality education to empower the people of South Africa and Africa to change their lives and futures for the better.