Address by President Nelson Mandela on receiving honorary degrees from the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge, De Montfort, Glasgow Caledonian, London, Nottingham, Oxford and Warwick, London - United Kingdom

10 July 1996

Your Royal Highness;
My Lords and Ladies;
Distinguished guests.

Universities, it is well-known, do not lightly confer honorary degrees and thereby commit their own status and esteem. It is therefore a singular privilege and pleasure for me to be in this illustrious company on this memorable occasion, and to have such accolades bestowed on me.

I do understand, however, that it is not individual achievements which are being honoured. Rather it is the remarkable way in which South Africans have turned from division and conflict to reconciliation and the peaceful pursuit of a better life. In this spirit, and on their behalf, I express my gratitude for these magnanimous awards and accept them with deepest humility.

The honour you do us as a nation is magnified by the fact that these high honours express a warmth and commitment which is also practical. The support which we received from the universities of Britain during our struggle was an inspiration to us. I am aware too that each and every university represented here is involved with South Africa in a positive and constructive fashion.

Had time allowed, it would have been my wish to visit personally each of the universities which has chosen to honour me in this manner today. It would have been a special privilege to cross the length and breadth of your country and discuss with each institution what you are doing - to go from Glasgow Caledonian in the north to London; from Bristol in the west across to Cambridge. At the universities of Warwick, Oxford, Nottingham and De Montfort we could have shared ideas on how the South African government could best facilitate co-operation with respect to tertiary education.

Unfortunately the vagaries of fate have dictated otherwise, and I am therefore not at liberty to fulfil my wish.

Empathy, support and assistance from the tertiary sector in Britain has been forthcoming over the past two years to a staggering degree. For this I wish from the bottom of my heart to voice my gratitude and that of all those for whom i speak today. South Africans have been overwhelmed by your goodwill, and we intend to respond to the many kind offers in a fitting fashion.

We appreciate in particular the assistance rendered by way of generous scholarship and funding programmes. I am made to understand that within our legislatures and in our organs of state, including the delegation present here to day, there are many who are benefiting from these programmes, upgrading their skills as they contribute practically to transformation.

Apartheid imposed disastrous restrictions on the pool of skills available to our nation. This has not only been politically unjust; but it has had a massive impact on the possibilities for expanding and modernising our economy. Massive investment in people, in particular through education and training, is therefore one of the priorities we have set ourselves. Your programmes not only enlarge the body of trained people; but they also provide a channel for the infusion of new knowledge into South African society.

We are busy transforming our higher education system, from one that was oriented towards serving the interests of small and privileged minority to one that is geared to helping meet the needs of all South Africans. As we do so we are faced with many choices and decisions.

One of these challenges is to find the right balance between research and teaching activities aimed at producing useful results in the short-term and those which may not produce applications for decades. We have to develop South Africa's capacity to innovate and draw effectively from the whole world's scientific and intellectual activities. But our universities must also make a decisive impact in addressing the nation's basic needs. We must ensure that the paradigm of teaching and learning accords with the country's social conditions and position in the world arena.

In this regard we have a great deal to learn from your own experience. And the honour you have bestowed on me, and through me, to the people of South Africa, is an injunction for us to drink from the well of your experience and that of others; at the same time as we make our own humble contribution to the repository of world academic excellence. I am confident that we have a solid foundation on which to build, in the universities of our two countries and in our shared aspirations and values.

The honour, from so many distinguished centres of thought and wisdom, is an act that has overwhelmed me. A single honorary degree from any one of the institutions here would be a humbling experience. My gratitude and appreciation defy words.

In conclusion, may I join you in thanking our hosts, Their Royal Highnesses, for so graciously accommodating our capricious needs.

I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation