Mandela’s death triggers memories of anti-apartheid struggle

How big a role did scholars play in abolition of heinous system?

December 12, 2013

Source: Getty

Kicked into touch: sporting boycott may have had the biggest impact on apartheid

As the world reflects on the life of Nelson Mandela, many scholars have been recalling the impact of the apartheid system (and the campaign against it) on universities in South Africa, the UK and the wider world.

Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, left South Africa in 1981 after witnessing the effects of anti-apartheid riots while she attended drama school in Cape Town in the late 1970s.

“The medical students set up clinics to help people from the townships who had been injured by the police and we helped where we could,” she recalled. “It was a baptism of fire and changed the way I see the world.”

She added: “I did leave because I did not believe apartheid would ever end and I did not think white people could do anything positive in South Africa: they were the oppressors, even if they did not believe in apartheid.

“Of course, I was proved wrong and when Mandela was released I danced with my husband and British-born children in front of the television.”

Universities were often vocal in the campaign against apartheid and many scholars boycotted institutions in South Africa, refusing to travel there, invite the country’s scholars to the UK or publish their papers.

Professor Stuart said their efforts were “important in that they reminded the Nationalist government that the world did not agree with apartheid”.

But she argued that the sporting boycott – which excluded South Africa from the Rugby World Cup in 1987 and 1991 (the post-apartheid country won it in 1995) – had more impact on “sports mad” South Africans.

Chris Brink, vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, who became head of mathematics at the University of Cape Town after Mr Mandela was freed, concurred.

“An academic boycott isn’t going to be at the top of your worries” – the sporting boycott “definitely” had more impact, he said.

To some extent, it suited the apartheid government that the country’s Afrikaans-speaking universities remained “insular”, he said – an insularity that partly explained the regime’s longevity.

A journal article released in 1995 that surveyed South African scholars on the impact of the boycott concluded that it had proved an “irritant or inconvenience rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress”.

“The Academic Boycott of South Africa: Symbolic Gesture or Effective Agent of Change?” in the journal Perspectives on the Professions found that 57 per cent of respondents said they had been affected by it.

Even though the impact of the academic boycott remains unclear, Professor Brink added that scholarly anti-apartheid campaigners should take “credit and consolation” from their work.

“Many people feel proud and like to think they made a contribution. Overall that’s right,” he said.

Capital candidate: one election Mandela didn’t win

Perhaps the best-known link between Nelson Mandela and the UK academy is his attempt to study for a University of London law degree during his long imprisonment.

He passed the intermediate examinations in 1963 but was seemingly thwarted by his jailors in completing the degree. The People’s University 1858-2008, a book marking the 150th anniversary of the university’s external degree system, describes how some of the necessary books were banned and Mr Mandela’s study privileges revoked.

But there is a lesser-known connection between Mr Mandela and the university: in 1981 he was one of three candidates for chancellor, a position elected by the institution’s graduates.

In the event he finished behind not only the winner, Princess Anne (who received 57.5 per cent of the vote), but also another apparent anti-Establishment candidate, Jack Jones, former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Lord Annan, the University of London’s vice-chancellor at the time, welcomed Princess Anne’s election and said that the result “shows where the heart of the university lies”, according to an archived edition of The Times.

Yet most students had backed Mr Mandela, according to Anna Clarke, then president of the university student union, the paper also reported.

According to another Times report, Mr Mandela’s nomination had apparently been approved by his lawyer, and one of those who had put him forward was Trevor Phillips, at that time president of the National Union of Students, who went on to become chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The election prompted a flurry of letters to The Times, some complaining that the university had given too little time to find alternative candidates to Princess Anne.

A day before the election, the university’s convocation voted that its standing committee had acted with “unseemly and unbecoming haste” in summoning the meeting to elect the chancellor.

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