The History of the Mandela Scholarship

Sussex was the first British university to offer Mandela Scholarships. In a pioneering effort to counter the injustice of apartheid and raise the profile of Mandela's struggle for freedom, students at Sussex founded the Scholarship in 1973.

March for Mandela

On 13 June 1964, students from Sussex, led by Thabo Mbeki marched from Brighton to London. The Rivonia Trialists, including Nelson Mandela and Govan Mbeki, Thabo's father, had been found guilty of high treason and were expected to be sentenced to death. The Mayor of Brighton closed Queens Road and the march set off from the Clock Tower in the centre of the city. Overnight, the students marched to 10 Downing Street and handed in a petition, signed by 664 staff and students at Sussex University, to the Prime Minister. 

The apartheid years

By 1973, Nelson Mandela had already been imprisoned on Robben Island for 11 years. Sussex was in its 12th year. As a new university, Sussex was seen as a home for radical thinking, with an Afrocentric perspective. Since its founding in 1964, AFRAS (The School of African and Asian Studies and the precursor to the Sussex Africa Centre) was one of the UK’s foremost hubs of African and Asian scholarship and teaching, gaining a reputation for critical, creative, activist research. Many South African exiles found a home at Sussex - it was a safe place to study where they could also be politically active. The University and its students were active in the anti-apartheid movement throughout the 60s and 70s. If you remember anti-apartheid activity on campus, please share your story with us. 

Students at Sussex were the driving force behind the Mandela Scholarship. They saw it as a way of raising the profile of Mandela’s struggle for freedom, and providing a scholarship was a form of direct action against the apartheid regime. The University supported the move and agreed to waive tuition fees of Mandela Scholars if students raised their living expenses.

In 1975, Neil Hunt, a student at Sussex, noticed that no one had taken advantage of the Mandela Scholarship, so he contacted the African National Congress (ANC) in London. They responded that they had many candidates but that they lacked the academic qualifications required by a British university. Neil took this dilemma to the Vice Chancellor, Asa Briggs, who agreed that Sussex would waive the academic requirements.

In January 1976, the ANC visited the Sussex campus and signed an agreement with the University to accept students on their merits and aptitude. In September 1976, John Gaetsewe became the first ever Mandela Scholar at Sussex, enrolling to study engineering. Both John and his father, John Gaetsewe Snr, were giants of the South African Union movement and the anti-apartheid struggle. Sadly, John passed away in Botswana in 1988 and never saw South Africa free. The second Mandela Scholar, Maxwell Sirenya, arrived in September 1977 to study Economics: "I sought political asylum in the UK with a view to pursuing my studies, which I could not do in South Africa as I would have been persecuted for my role in the student uprising.”

Despite the severe political challenges of the time, Sussex made it possible for oppressed and exiled South Africans to study at the University. As a result, many Sussex alumni who studied at Sussex during the years of apartheid era went on to serve in Mandela’s first government.

Freedom for South Africa

Nelson Mandela seated wearing a grey suit

It would be 20 years before apartheid was dismantled and Nelson Mandela became the first freely elected President of South Africa. Shortly after his release in 1991 he wrote to the Scholarship Fund asking Sussex to continue to support students from Southern Africa.

Mandela requested that the University support postgraduate students, so since 1992 Sussex has looked to recruit 3 Mandela Scholars every year. The University continues to waive the fees but we now rely on alumni and other benefactors to support the stipend costs of each Mandela Scholar.

More than 70 Mandela Scholars have now graduated from Sussex, returning home to become leaders in their field, scientists, environmentalists, development professionals and government ministers. Dr Nhlanhla Msomi is Chairman of BioAfrica; Fumani Mthembi is Managing Director of Knowledge Pele; Her Excellency Robina Marks is the current South African High Commissioner to Sri Lanka; and Crystal Orderson is an award-winning journalist based in South Africa. Like Mandela and Sussex, they too aim to build a better world.

You can read the stories of some of our former Mandela scholars here

Whenever I speak to Sussex alumni in South Africa, they always comment on the contribution made by the University to defeating apartheid. It is humbling, but also makes you proud to be associated with Sussex. ” Robert Yates (afras, 1996)
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