Nelson Mandela Education

Today we speak about Nelson Mandela education.

Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa in 1994, serving until 1999. A symbol of global peacemaking, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is a well educated man. He is a great believer in education and life-long learning. It was at the Wesleyan mission school that he first attended that he was given the name Nelson.

Two quick quotes from Nelson Mandela on education give an indication of what he believes:

  • “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
  • “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

This formal schooling was not the only Nelson Mandela education though. As the son of a tribal councilor he learned the art of listening which helped in his role as a leader and peacemaker throughout his life.

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." Nelson Mandela.
"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." 
Nelson Mandela

In terms of formal schooling when Mandela’s father died when Nelson was 9, he was taken under the guardianship of the regent Jongintaba. In the usual Thembu custom Nelson Mandela school meant initiation at 16 and attendance at Clarkebury Boarding School. Instead of taking the usual three years to complete his Junior Certification Nelson was through in 2 years.

No one in my family had ever attended school [...] On the first day of school my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why this particular name I have no idea.

— Mandela, 1994

From there he went (in 1937) to the usual college for Thembu royalty – Healdtown in Fort Beaufort. At the Fort Hare University Nelson Mandela became involved in the Student Representative Council. Following a boycott there he was told to leave and the Nelson Mandela education took a change of direction.

Education Nelson Mandela
Without education your children can never really meet the challenges they face.
Nelson Mandela

Rather than follow through on his guardians wish for an arranged marriage the young Nelson took off to Johannesburg. He completed his Bachelor of Arts studies there through the University of South Africa through correspondence.

Mandela then went on to study law at the University of Witswatersrand. Nelson Mandela university life was interrupted by his involvement in the ANC. He and friend Oliver Tambo opened the first black legal practice in South Africa, giving affordable and often free advice to black people who could otherwise not afford it. Mandela continued his legal education while he was in prison too.

Clarkebury, Healdtown, and Fort Hare: 1934–1940

Intending to gain skills needed to become a privy councillor for the Thembu royal house, in Mandela began his secondary education at Clarkebury Methodist High School in Engcobo, a Western-style institution that was the largest school for black Africans in Thembuland. Made to socialise with other students on an equal basis, he claimed that he lost his "stuck up" attitude, becoming best friends with a girl for the first time; he began playing sports and developed his lifelong love of gardening. He completed his Junior Certificate in two years, and in moved to Healdtown, the Methodist college in Fort Beaufort attended by most Thembu royalty, including Justice. The headmaster emphasised the superiority of English culture and government, but Mandela became increasingly interested in native African culture, making his first non-Xhosa friend, a speaker of Sotho, and coming under the influence of one of his favourite teachers, a Xhosa who broke taboo by marrying a Sotho. Mandela spent much of his spare time at Healdtown as a long-distance runner and boxer, and in his second year he became a prefect.

Nelson Mandela began work on a BA degree at the University of Fort Hare
Nelson Mandela began work on a BA degree at the University of Fort Hare

With Jongintaba's backing,  Nelson Mandela began work on a BA degree at the University of Fort Hare, an elite black institution in Alice, Eastern Cape, with around 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. Mandela stayed in the Wesley House dormitory, befriending his own kinsman, K. D. Matanzima, as well as Oliver Tambo, who became a close friend and comrade for decades to come. He took up ballroom dancing, performed in a drama society play about Abraham Lincoln, and gave Bible classes in the local community as part of the Student Christian Association. Although he had friends connected to the African National Congress (ANC) who wanted South Africa to be independent of the British Empire, Mandela avoided any involvement with the anti-imperialist movement, and became a vocal supporter of the British war effort when the Second World War broke out. He helped to found a first-year students' house committee which challenged the dominance of the second-years, and at the end of his first year became involved in a Students' Representative Council (SRC) boycott against the quality of food, for which he was suspended from the university; he never returned to complete his degree.

A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.
Nelson Mandela Education

Under the guardianship of Regent Jongintaba, Mandela was groomed to assume high office, not as a chief, but a counselor to one. As Thembu royalty, Mandela attended a Wesleyan mission school, the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Wesleyan College, where, he would later state, he achieved academic success through "plain hard work." He also excelled at track and boxing. Mandela was initially mocked as a "country boy" by his Wesleyan classmates, but eventually became friends with several students, including Mathona, his first female friend.

In 1939, Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only residential center of higher learning for blacks in South Africa at the time. Fort Hare was considered Africa's equivalent of the University of Oxford or Harvard University, drawing scholars from all parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In his first year at the university, Mandela took the required courses, but focused on Roman Dutch law to prepare for a career in civil service as an interpreter or clerk — regarded as the best profession that a black man could obtain at the time.

In his second year at Fort Hare, Mandela was elected to the Student Representative Council. For some time, students had been dissatisfied with the food and lack of power held by the SRC. During this election, a majority of students voted to boycott unless their demands were met. Aligning with the student majority, Mandela resigned from his position. Seeing this as an act of insubordination, the university's Dr. Kerr expelled Mandela for the rest of the year and gave him an ultimatum: He could return to the school if he agreed to serve on the SRC. When Mandela returned home, the regent was furious, telling him unequivocally that he would have to recant his decision and go back to school in the fall.

A few weeks after Mandela returned home, Regent Jongintaba announced that he had arranged a marriage for his adopted son. The regent wanted to make sure that Mandela's life was properly planned, and the arrangement was within his right, as tribal custom dictated. Shocked by the news, feeling trapped and believing that he had no other option than to follow this recent order, Mandela ran away from home. He settled in Johannesburg, where he worked a variety of jobs, including as a guard and a clerk, while completing his bachelor's degree via correspondence courses. He then enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study law.

When he was put into Robben Island prison Mandela often gave legal advice to both prisoners and prison staff. His love and belief in education was appreciated, and Robben Island became known as the ‘Nelson Mandela University’. It was a cruel and tough life in prison, but Mandela somehow managed to turn it into a place of learning.

Mandela saw education as part of the key to winning the struggle against apartheid, while at the same time he had spoken out that education had nothing to do with a person being ‘able’ to vote or think.


[1] Using education to change our world for the better

[2] Nelson Mandela

[3] “Education is the Most Powerful Weapon Which You Can Use to Change the World”

[4] Remembering Nelson Mandela

[5] Nelson Mandela: One Man