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How Nelson Mandela impacted global education

By Sean Campbell• Last updated: Jun 26, 2023
How Nelson Mandela impacted global education
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In July every year since 2009, the world celebrates Mandela Day, a day on which people in his native South Africa and all around the world are called upon to make a small difference in their communities. 

But the difference Nelson Mandela has made to the world is anything but small. He’s one of the most influential figures of the 20th and 21st century. Of his many staggering political and social achievements, which we’ll go into detail on here, his impact on education was a particularly profound one.

But before we go there, let’s take a quick look at the life, achievements and legacy of the man affectionately known as “Madiba”. 

At a glance: Who was Nelson Mandela and what did he fight for?

Mandela is best known for being the very first black head of state in South Africa. After centuries of white supremacist rule by the British and the Dutch, Mandela fought for the rights of the non-white people in South Africa, who made up around 90% of the country’s population. He spent over 27 years in prison for sabotage, treason and conspiracy, yet within 4 years of his release in 1990, he was elected president in South Africa’s first democratic election. 

We’ll go into much more detail on this below, but aside from his social and political activism, Mandela, who lived from 1918 until 2013, was known as a revolutionary, a philanthropist, a peace-maker, and an advocate of education rights for all.  

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The greatest achievements of Nelson Mandela

1. Anti-Apartheid activism 

2. South Africa’s first black legal practice

3. Imprisonment and transformation

4. The Nobel Peace Prize

5. South Africa’s first black President

6. Bringing education to rural South Africa 

1. Anti-Apartheid activism 

For hundreds of years South Africa was ruled by Dutch and British colonizers, who slowly but surely stripped away the power and rights of the African population. In 1948, a system of constitutionalised racial segregration called “Apartheid” was introduced, setting in law that which has been practised for the previous centuries. 

Apartheid ensured that South Africa’s white population, who accounted for less than 10% of the country’s people, would rule supreme over the country, while people of colour and in particular black Africans would maintain a far inferior status, without even the right to vote. In short, white people ruled and people of colour suffered.

Mandela rose to prominence as an anti-Apartheid activist - a prominent member of the African National Congress (the ANC), the illegal political party who sought to re-instate democracy in South Africa and reshape the power structure. 

2. The first black legal practice

Mandela, who had been born into the influential and wealthy Madiba clan, was well educated, attending university but not graduating as his activism took precedence. 

He did secure a two year diploma in law, and eventually gained an LLB in Law in 1989 (while in prison, no less). But prior to gaining that qualification, Mandela’s diploma allowed him to practise. 

In 1952, he and his friend and future fellow politician Oliver Tambo established Mandela & Tambo -- South Africa’s first ever black law firm.  

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3. Imprisonment and transformation

Normally, going to prison wouldn’t be considered an achievement, but not so in Mandela’s case. He had already been trialled on three occasions for efforts to destabilise white supremacy through means both peaceful and, when civil disobedience proved ineffective, violent. He was finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1963 and sent to Robben Island, a small prison in the ocean near Cape Town. 

Despite his harsh treatment in prison, Madiba underwent something of a transformation during his 27 years there. He used his time locked away to open up his heart and mind to his so-called enemies. He was still a revolutionary at heart, but he was practical and realised that South Africa would have no future without forgiveness and love. 

He decided to turn away from resentment, and work towards reconciliation, saying, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” 

He later wrote in his must-read autobiography The Long Walk To Freedom, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

During his prison term, he received and rejected three conditional offers of release, each of which would curtail his political influence as well as that of the ANC. Finally, President FW De Clerk, who knew that the end of Apartheid was nearing due international and domestic pressure, met with Mandela and agreed his release in 1990, as well as the legalisation of his ANC political party. 

4. The Nobel Peace Prize

Upon his release, Mandela continued his campaign to end white supremacist rule, a campiagn which was looking increasingly likely to succeed and one which gathered the attention of the whole world. He was elected leader of the ANC, replacing his old legal companion Oliver Tamobo. 

Together with FW De Klerk, the pair negotiated the ending of Apartheid, and they jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. 

5. South Africa’s first black President

The following year, Apartheid was officially brought to an end. In April, South Africa held its first democratic election in which people of every race could vote. 

Mandela stood for president as head of the ANC, and unsurprisingly, they enjoyed a landslide victory with 63% of the popular vote. 

Mandela had always said that he would serve only one term as president, as he felt that he’d done enough to lay the groundwork for a better, more equal society in South Africa. So, in 1999, Madiba stepped down. 

6. Bringing education to rural South Africa 

But Mandela’s work was far from over. He used his time after his presidency to continue spreading change throughout South Africa and the world, as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. 

In 2007, he founded the Nelson Mandela Institute for Rural Development and Education. Having grown up in the countryside himself, he’d seen how education outside of urban areas was lacking. He said at the time “Many students in far off rural areas in our country do not become confident readers and writers. Indeed, they are denied the creativity that in turn denies the world the boldness of their ideas.”

Even today, teachers are trained and brought to rural areas along with more modern equipment to help boost the standards of education in the countryside. There’s still a lot of work to do, but Madiba’s legacy offers hope that someday, the gap between urban and rural education standards will close. 

Nelson Mandela on Education

Mandela always understood that without his own strong education, which came by virtue of his family’s high standing (which was all too rare for black South Africans), was what empowered him to affect so much change in his country. He believed that education was one of the greatest equalisers available to humanity, and that without it, we stand little chance. 

But rather than reading it from us, why not read it from the man himself? Here’s a selection of Nelson Mandela’s most famous education quotes to inspire you: 

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”

“Young people must take it upon themselves to ensure that they receive the highest education possible so that they can represent us well in future as future leaders.”

“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs.”

“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation.”

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Nelson Mandela
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Sean is a freelance writer, copywriter & editor from Ireland.

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