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Report: South Africa

Law students worry about Mandela, their role model

Photo: D.Finnan

Students at the law faculty of Witwatersrand University are on tenterhooks as anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela spends his sixth night in hospital on Wednesday, receiving treatment for a recurrent lung infection. Undergraduates at the Johannesburg university feel a special sense of pride in following in Mandela’s footsteps.


“Politics and law, for me, they’re joined,” says 22-year-old law student Lincoln Machaba. “If you look at Nelson Mandela, one of my role models, it’s something I picked, partly, because of him.”

Mandela enrolled at Wits, as it is affectionately known, in 1943, a year before co-founding the African National Congress Youth League.

And given the seriousness of Mandela’s condition, many of the students RFI spoke to are in a reflective, yet realistic mood.

“Obviously, I wish him the best,” Machaba says, “but at his age right now, I’m not really surprised that this is happening.”

Witwatersrand law faculty is home to the Mandela Institute, which was launched in 2000 with the aim of offering “basic and advanced teaching in different areas of international economic law”.

Third year undergraduate student Anele Dlamini says he is hoping to become a legal advisor working for businesses. He says there is something special about attending the same university as the former president.

“You have a lot of pride,” he tells RFI, shortly after having checked the notice board for exam results. “It’s something I wouldn’t shy away from telling people,” he adds.

Dlamini calls Mandela’s condition “unfortunate”, however he is also pragmatic about the prospects of his recovery. “He’s at that age where we could expect anything. I personally see that it’s not going to be very long till he departs from this earth,” he says.

Mandela studied at Witwatersrand until 1948. However, he left without graduating. By his own admission he was a poor student. He only completed his law degree in 1989 during his last few months of imprisonment.

For Zimbabwean law student Thulani Mubi, Mandela’s legal studies shaped him to become the man who helped end apartheid.

“Law is very broad and especially with Mandela’s mandate, he was fighting for human rights and equality,” says Mubi, a Law Students Council member.

“There are different ways to fight liberation struggles - it can be physical, guerrilla warfare – but also education plays a part,” Mubi says. “Do you know the law, can you challenge your oppressors with law and legal texts,” the young Zimbabwean questions.

Studying law at Witwatersrand University does not come cheap. Tuition fees for South African students are an average of more than 26,000 rand (1,900 euros) for the first year of an LLB.

Machaba says he managed to secure a bursary from government to the tune of 60,000 rand (4,400 euro) a year. Half of this is used for tuition fees, half for living expenses.

He says he thinks it is a good investment, particularly as he’s hoping to go into politics to help make a difference in the future. Machaba says he is inspired by the ailing anti-apartheid leader, who once walked through the same corridors and sat in the same classrooms.

“There’s a backlog of work that needs to be done in this country. The politicians now they’re doing a good job,” Machaba says. “But I feel like it’s a long road, and with the youth, including myself, I think we could take it a step further.”

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