Address by Nelson Mandela on receiving Honorary Doctorate of Law from Rhodes University, Grahamstown

16 April 2002

Chairperson of Council
Members of the University
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen

It is probably a sign of my age, but on receiving the kind notification of your intention to honour me in this way I posed an enquiry to your chancellor in his other capacity of having to attend to the running of aspects of my life.

Have I not already received an honorary degree from Rhodes University? I asked him.

After all we have been here on two occasions while we were still in the office of President.

I was then reminded that on one of those occasions of visiting this beautiful city it was to receive the freedom of the city; on the other occasion it was to celebrate with you the inauguration of your vice-chancellor, Dr David Woods.

They say that things come in threes. If that is so, then I now feel fully honoured by the city of Grahamstown and I thank Rhodes University - so central a part of the city - for having rounded off that trinity by this great and generous gesture.

I have fond memories of Rhodes University.

It is of course so that the South Africa in which I grew up was fundamentally structured and governed in racial terms.

I was a student at nearby Fort Hare University and my presence there, apart from the fact that it was at that time a proud institution in its own right, was also due to the racial structuring of education in our country.

In spite of that, I remember Rhodes University as a place that maintained cordial and dignified relations with my alma mater and its students.

We often visited Rhodes and my recollections are of a place where we were received and treated with dignity and honour in a country and at a time when that kind of cross-racial interaction was not common.

To receive this honour from Rhodes University completes that circle for me, and I thank you most humbly for that. Being here this morning, is a homecoming to a proud institution in the province of my birth.

I have promised the Minister of Education that I shall not pronounce publicly on any aspects of the proposed restructuring of higher education. If I say how much I cherish what Rhodes and Fort Hare have respectively meant for the development of this region, country and continent, it is not to enter the debate about mergers or non-mergers in the province.

It is merely to recognise and acknowledge how the different strands of our history have contributed to bringing us to where we are as a country and a people.

I often find occasion to refer us to three phrases posed next to one another in the Preamble of our Constitution, and I quote:

"We honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity."

I have recently agreed to enter into a relationship with the Rhodes Trust with which this university has significant ties.

We launched in Cape Town, with your chancellor and vice-chancellor present, the Mandela-Rhodes Trust as a joint initiative between the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Rhodes Trust.

We shall be pooling some of our resources and skills to contribute to the development of our country and continent.

Cecil John Rhodes and ourselves come from very different and even conflicting strands of South African history, and there are those who may very legitimately question our decision to enter into this relationship.

It is exactly the injunction of those three phrases from the Preamble of our Constitution that moved us to that decision.

We have to harness all of the different strands of our history as we reconstruct and develop our country. And we have to ensure that we live together in ways that make all South Africans confident that the country belongs equally to all who live in it.

Allow me, too, to address myself very briefly to the graduates and diplomates of the day. After all, this is your very special day.

May I congratulate you, each and everyone individually, on your achievement.

You are our future.

Your dedication and hard work, being celebrated here today, will make of South Africa the winning nation that it can certainly become.

Those of us from older generations - and I include myself very specifically in that - carry in one way or the other the baggage of our past.

Some of us succeed more and others less in coping with that baggage. You, the present generation growing up in a democratic and non-racial and non-sexist dispensation, are the ones to build a society free from that baggage and legacy of our past.

Admittedly, the challenges facing you are enormous and more complex than those past generations faced.

Poverty, unemployment, economic inequality are fundamental and generic issues of our times.

HIV/AIDS is a threat of such proportions as we have not faced in centuries.

However, to despair and throw up our hands in hopelessness would be contrary to the spirit that has brought us as a country and a people to where we are today.

Your education and the skills with which you are equipped, are the major weapons in the war we are fighting against all of those social and economic problems identified. You are the fighters in the vanguard of those battles.

We congratulate you and we wish you well, not only for your own sakes but also for the sake and future of our country of which you are the cornerstones.

We cannot conclude without paying tribute to your parents, guardians, family and supporters who contributed to and often sacrificed for bringing you to this stage in your lives and development.

As we celebrate your youth, I have to remind you of the disadvantages of age. Nothing would have pleased me more than to have been able to stay, witness and rejoice with you in the capping ceremony that will now follow.

The vagaries of age, however, dictate that I have to move my weary limbs. I shall soon take my leave, but it is with the sincere wish that you move your limbs with the energy of youth in search of great and noble ideals and objectives.

That will add to my honour of joining you as an alumnus of this great university.

Chancellor, I thank you.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation