When most people think of Mandela and education,

the most common reference that springs to mind is his powerful injunction that

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

I have a different foundational quote on Mandela and education that inspires me.

The day was 24 April 1964 in the Pretoria Supreme Court and Nelson Mandela was in the dock opening his defense during the Rivonia Trial.

He and others were on the verge of being sentenced to hanging for terrorist activities.

The stakes were high. He had a young wife that he loved and two small girls that needed his support.

The fiery Rolihlahla was rising to prominence as an inspiring national leader with all the promise of leading South Africans to freedom.

If prosecutor Percy Yutar had his way, this talented African would hear an apartheid judge utter those dreadful words: “You will hang by the neck until you are dead.”

 In these dire circumstances, one would expect Nelson Mandela to plead for this life, his family

and his duty to the nation. Instead, he does something completely unexpected with these opening words:

“I hold a bachelor’s degree in arts.” I still get goosebumps when I read those words.

Very few South Africans held university degrees in those days, let alone rural African men from villages like Mvezo in the Eastern Cape.

This was a point of pride. It signaled what Madiba held dear.

Even if they took his life, his education was one thing that the white authorities could not take away.

We now know from newly published prison letters just how important studies were to Nelson Mandela. Indeed, throughout his life Nelson Mandela would be found studying, both before Robben Island and on Robben Island.

With a solid foundation in mission education, the gifted Mandela would enroll at Wits University for a BA degree in the arts.

He would pick up studies again at ‘Robben Island University’, as the inmates dubbed it, and complete his LLB. For Mandela, education and the struggle were the same thing.

It must have pained the great man during the 1980s when he would have become aware of the student slogan “liberation now, education later”.

For his generation, education was the route to liberation or, as he put it, “the weapon” for achieving your goals.

This understanding of education was instrumental to achieve a goal beyond yourself, “to change the world”.

Many who work tirelessly in civil society to improve the lot of others gained this conception of education from the great leader – it is not about self-indulgence but service to others.

He instructs his children in one of those letters from prison,

“When you become a doctor or scientist, use your knowledge to help people who are poor and miserable and who have no opportunity to develop”.

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