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“The Black Man in the White Man’s Court”: Mandela at Wits University, South Africa, 1943-1949


Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was 24 years old when he enrolled for his Bachelor of Law (LLB) degree at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa at the beginning of 1943. Mandela was the only African in the Law Faculty at Wits and suffered racism from both the white student body and faculty during the years he spent in pursuit of this degree. On July 20, 2015, Professor Bruce Murray of Wits presented a paper entitled “Nelson Mandela and Wits University”3 that the Sunday Times, South Africa printed with the title “No Easy Walk to LLB for Madiba,” that tersely suggested that it took Mandela 46 years to earn his LLB degree, instead of the normal stipulation of three or four years that is a requirement for a student to complete an LLB degree.4 After enjoying service at Hope Restoration Church, I read this newspaper article about the former President Mandela, who sacrificed so much for South Africa, feeling the injustice in the prejudicial manner in which both Murray’s Wits paper and the Sunday Times article were written. I thought of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, respectively, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” and, “The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”5 Immediately, I replied to the Sunday Times article with a two-page piece entitled, “Between Mandela and his LLB Degree was Racism and Apartheid at Wits University.” Sunday Times (August 2 2015) printed just five paragraphs of my article and titled it “Racism at Wits cost Madiba his LLB.”6 As I was writing this article for Ufahamu, The Thinker (a pan-African quarterly for thought leaders) published my two-page article with my own title, “Between Mandela and his LLB Degree was Racism and Apartheid,” that the Sunday Times had opted not to publish.7 The humiliations that Mandela suffered at Wits, rooted in racism, prejudice, and discrimination continue at South African universities today. This paper is an attempt to put in the public domain these humiliations that speak to the rationales why it would take, according to the Sunday Times article, Mandela 46 years to earn an LLB degree.

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