Obituary for Nelson Mandela

At a joint gathering in Frankfurt/Main and in memory of his life and work in South Africa and around the world, we bid farewell to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, born on July 18, 1918 and passed away on December 5, 2013.

We are very happy and proud that World University Service was able to have Nelson Mandela as a scholar in its ranks. Nelson Mandela is the most prominent WUS scholar to date.

With the commitment and mandate to work for “education as a human right”, World University Service (WUS) has campaigned against apartheid and in particular against “Bantu Education”, an inferior education for all non-whites in South Africa.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela, from his defence speech in 1964 at the Rivonia Trial

During his 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela, together with other fellow prisoners on Robben Island, created what must have been a unique institution, Robben Island University. While the pictures of Mandela and the fellow prisoners went around the world, who had to crush stones in the quarry under the open sky and in all weathers, a hard physical work aimed at breaking people, they studied under extremely difficult conditions and invisible from the outside as WUS scholars in their prison cells. The results of this intellectual work became visible when the prison gates opened in 1990, the bans against political opposition were lifted and Mandela, together with other companions, laid the foundations for a new South Africa.

A look back at the beginnings of solidarity work with southern Africa

During the Apartheid era, politicians in countries whose governments were actively opposing apartheid and colonialism considered the best way to strengthen the opposition in South Africa and its neighbouring countries. The idea was not to wait until there was a change in policy, but to support processes of change here and now by building parallel structures. Likewise, people were to be trained so that, in the event of a change of policy, they would have the necessary skills that “Bantu Education” and apartheid policies denied them, but which were needed in order to become actively involved in the transformation of society and the corresponding institutions.

Another question arose: How and by whom should the support projects for the opposition in the countries and for the liberation movements in exile be implemented? Two options were discussed: should the programs be implemented by state institutions or by non-governmental organisations (NGOs)?

Leading this discussion were the Scandinavian countries, and especially their political figures such as then-Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg of Norway and Prime Minister Olaf Palme of Sweden. As early as 1968, Sweden began programs of direct humanitarian support to liberation movements – first to those fighting against Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique and Angola – Frelimo and MPLA – and later to the liberation movements ZANU (Zimbabwean African National Union) and ZAPU (Zimbabwean African People’s Union) in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, SWAPO (South West African People’s Organization) in Namibia, and the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. This approach was rejected as unacceptable by the political leadership of the ‘Western world’ at the time.

Both Stoltenberg and Palme knew firsthand the work and importance of non-governmental organsations. For example, both had been actively involved in World University Service (WUS) during their political careers. The decision to entrust NGOs with the implementation of support programs was thus obvious to them and led to educational programs on the ground in South Africa and in support of people in exile being implemented by WUS and its diverse network partners in the education sector – especially at universities – and in politics.

South Africa work of WUS in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG)

Since the end of the 1960s and increasingly in the 1970s and 1980s, organisations that publicly supported the liberation movements in Southern Africa – including WUS – were often all too quickly defamed as anti-state and communist, since they did not conform to the official policies of the Federal Government, the USA and NATO.

The activities of WUS International, its country committees in southern Africa, and above all Canada, Great Britain and the Federal Republic of Germany with regard to South Africa continued to emanate decisively from the Scandinavian countries in the following years.

With regard to support programs for refugees, this was done in close co-operation with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and the WUS committees on the ground in African countries that had taken in refugees from South Africa.

For the German committee of WUS, this meant that they implemented scholarship programs in the Federal Republic of Germany for exiles from South Africa and its neighbouring countries. This was quite a comprehensive undertaking, ranging from clarifying residence permits, arranging a place in a language college to learn German, to selecting the appropriate field of study and admission requirements, and registering at universities. Furthermore, they were helped with personal and family concerns. An important meeting point and opportunity for exchange were the weekend seminars regularly organised by WUS.

The scholarship program faced three major challenges and had three goals:

1. to facilitate individual, Group and Community Liberation struggle through the alternative means of the book and the pen rather than the bullet and the gun

2. to help victims of repressive and oppressive regimes attain self-reliance through gaining access to the education and training they have been denied access to, or deprived of

3. to assist in preparing the Manpower required by countries when liberated.

WUS held conferences on the situation in South Africa and southern Africa together with trade unions, universities, NGOs, as well as with government agencies, and supported initiatives at universities – including the Technical University and the Free University in Berlin, the universities of Frankfurt, Mainz and Cologne. This was done in close co-operation with the anti-apartheid movement, the trade unions, especially the GEW (Union for Education and Science), as well as with scientific associations and individual professors, such as the pedagogue Professor Dr. Patrick Diaz from the University of Frankfurt.

One example is the conference on “Education in Transition” in November 1991, where representatives from Southern Africa, Latin America and European countries discussed the transformation of education in South Africa.

While researching and writing this report, I naturally asked myself how these international projects could have been implemented without the Internet and the “world-wide-web” – unimaginable for us today. I’ll try to answer this question by saying that these projects were possible because people with enormous commitment and organisational skills, with an immense amount of trust and openness, and with innovative thinking that went beyond what already existed, came together and organised themselves in WUS. They were highly motivated – up to their necks I would guess – to break new ground, but with very clear goals and values: to work FOR human rights and AGAINST discrimination and racism.

To mention the many names of the people who successfully participated in the projects is immensely long. Therefore, our thanks are due to all those who initiated and implemented such projects before 1994. Thanks are also due to those who were able to use the projects, such as the scholarship programs, to assume social responsibility in their countries.

Two persons, representatives for many

Two persons are mentioned here with some biographical key points, Neville Alexander and Henning Melber. This is because they worked closely with the German Committee of WUS in Germany as well as in South Africa and Namibia and made an important contribution to the transformation, especially in the field of education, after the change of policy in their countries.

Neville Alexander (1936-2012) was an academic and activist against apartheid in Cape Town in the 1950s. He was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship and received his PhD from the University of Tübingen in 1961. After returning to South Africa, he was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964 to 1974 for his activism against apartheid. Over the years, WUS has worked with Neville Alexander in many ways precisely because of his expertise in “education” and “transformation.” He is well known in Germany and in South Africa for his contributions to the transformation of education in South Africa and as an advocate of a multilingual South Africa. He was director of the South African “Committee for Higher Education” and made important contributions in legislation for the development of languages. Internationally, Neville Alexander’s expertise was in demand, including his participation in the 2009 “World Conference of African Linguistics” in Cologne, Germany.

Henning Melber joined SWAPO in Namibia in 1974 as the son of German immigrants. He completed his doctorate and habilitation in Germany. During this time, he worked with WUS to implement conferences and a variety of projects to support change in Namibia. A major concern was to criticise apartheid education in Namibia. In the late 1980s, he became involved with WUS in raising and deepening public awareness of Namibia’s history. A variety of educational materials was produced in collaboration with the Namibia Project of the University of Bremen. In 1992, he returned to Namibia as Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU) and since 2006 has been Executive Director of the Dag Hammerskjöld Foundation and has recently held professorships in South Africa at the Universities of Pretoria and Bloemfontein.

Education in transition

Under the heading “Education in transition”, WUS worked with representatives from southern Africa and education experts from local universities to develop strategies and concepts for transforming the education system in South Africa in terms of content, organisation and institutions so that it can be democratically constituted and provide access for all.

What all WUS-funded education projects in South Africa had in common was that they aimed to provide financial support to civil society anti-apartheid organisations in planning and implementing their projects. A crucial criterion was that the responsibility for the project lay with the South Africans on the ground: they knew the political conditions under which the opposition was working, were most familiar with the concrete needs of the relevant target groups, and had the skills and technical expertise to implement the projects successfully. What was missing were the financial resources and an international network to support their efforts. In the list of well over 100 funded projects, three are mentioned as examples:

The distance learning program, among others, also for political prisoners on Robben Island, conducted together with the SACHED Trust. Nelson Mandela was one of the students and WUS scholarship holders.

Independent school projects such as the “Open School” under the leadership of Colin Smuts in Johannesburg aimed to teach skills such as self-confidence and self-reliance, something the government did not provide for in the context of “Bantu Education”. Colin Smuts is now the executive director of the Community Based Development Programme in Johannesburg.

In 1991, WUS, under the leadership of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, opened the WUS South Africa office in Cape Town, which, among other things, initiated and implemented programs for the reintegration of former political prisoners and returnees from exile. Since 2013, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka has headed the UN Women organisation, and from 2005 to 2008, she served as Deputy President of South Africa.

In retrospect, it can be said that WUS achieved two very important goals with its strategy for implementing the programs:

First, the people who implemented the projects on the ground at the time, or who were grantees, made and continue to make a significant contribution to the transformation process in their country as decision-makers.

Secondly, organisations that were supported at that time no longer exist today, fortunately, because they have achieved their purpose of helping to bring about political change in their countries. Their merit is that they laid the foundation for subsequent civil society organisations in the new South Africa, with Nelson Mandela as its first president elected by all South Africans.


Academic Freedom. Education and Human Rights: Book Series published by ZED Books, UK.

Alexander, Neville:

Education in Transition. Education and Education Planning for a Post-Apartheid Society in South Africa. Report of the Berlin Conference 19-24 November 1991. Edited by Kambiz Ghawami, Peggy Luswazi, Wolgang Karcher, Robert Kriger, Jürgen Zimmer. Compiled by Ethel Kriger. WUS: Wiesbaden. 1992.

Festschrift – 60 years of World University Service. WUS: Wiesbaden. 2010 (available for download from

Melber, Henning: see his contribution

WUS Germany: education, repression, liberation: Namibia. By Justin Ellis with an introduction by D. Goldschmidt and H. Melber. WUS: Wiesbaden. 1985.WUS International: Africa Scholarship Administrators Workshop, Report December 8-14, 1984 in Harare, Zimbabwe. WUS: Wiesbaden. 1985.

Author profile
Bettina Schmidt

Dr. Bettina Schmidt is a cultural anthropologist, project manager and lecturer for international programmes on development issues, human resource development and diversity management. She trained as a nurse, studied cultural anthropology and African Studies at the University of Mainz and Zimbabwe, holds a PhD from the University of Nijmegen, Netherlands, and holds a diploma in business management (Johannesburg). Her book, Creating order: culture as politics in 19th and 20th century South Africa was published 1996 by the University of Nijmegen. From 1991 to 1997 she was visiting research fellow at the University of Zimbabwe and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, was lecturer and researcher at the University of Mainz as well as consultant and project coordinator in adult education. Since 2012 she is a board-member of WUS Germany and volunteers in various of its activities. She is retired and works as external expert for the Africa section of the ethnological Lindenmuseum in Stuttgart focussing on colonialism and 357 List of Authors – A to Z – 100 years World University Service International restitution, and volunteers with WUS Germany. She published widely on the colonial and post-colonial period in Southern Africa.