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The fifth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's death

This month marked the fifth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013). We take a look at his thoughts on studying in prison.

Written by Alison McCarty |

Nelson Mandela
'I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.'

Nelson Mandela studied Law as a University of London student through distance and flexible learning during his 27 years of imprisonment on Robben Island.  Having passed the London Intermediate examinations in 1963, the conditions imposed by the South African authorities at the time prevented him from completing his degree.

So what was it like to access the reading materials Nelson Mandela needed to study whilst in prison? In the Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela says: ‘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.

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 LLB at the University of London. I had started studying for the LLB 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.

This is a glimpse into Nelson Mandela’s journey, which in 1993 led to Nelson and President F.W. de Klerk,  jointly winning the Nobel Peace Prize. This was ‘for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.’

Read more about Nelson Mandela