Nelson Mandela’s Educational Background: Tenacity 101

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Long Walk to Freedom" by Nelson Mandela. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was Nelson Mandela’s educational background? Why did it take him so long to complete his education?

Nelson Mandela’s formal education was over 40 years in the making. When he was a young Black man in segregated South Africa, he enjoyed the rare opportunity to attend university and law school. However, his journey got derailed a couple of times.

Keep reading to learn about Nelson Mandela’s educational background.

Nelson Mandela’s Educational Background

When Mandela was young, he went to live with Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo in the city of Mqhekezweni, the capital of the Thembu province. Mandela recalls that the chief and his family treated him like one of their own, and he came to consider their elder son Justice one of his best friends. 

Nelson Mandela’s educational background tells us something about the culture he lived in. As the adopted son of a clan chief living in a relatively large city, Mandela was able to get an excellent education for a Black South African of the time, eventually attending university. However, upon learning that Dalindyebo had arranged an unwanted marriage for him, Mandela left university without finishing his degree and fled to Johannesburg.  

(Shortform note: Arranged marriages are still common today. Some arranged marriages are consensual for both parties—for instance, some Indians living in the US and abroad hire matchmakers to assist them in finding a life partner who consents to the marriage. However, arranged marriages are considered oppressive, forced marriages when one or both parties refuse to provide consent. For instance, forced marriages occur in the United Kingdom and the US. Forced marriages can have devastating effects, especially for young girls; they’re often denied the chance at an education and forced to give birth while still very young, and are thereby trapped for life in poverty and exploitation.)

At this time, Mandela’s real interest was in law. In 1942, he finally earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and shortly afterward enrolled as a law student. However, he explains, after devoting his life to politics, he neglected his studies and repeatedly failed his final year of law school. He didn’t officially earn a law degree until 1988—over 40 years later—when he completed his LL.B. (bachelor of laws) degree by correspondence while he was imprisoned.

(Shortform note: The term “college dropout” has connotations of incompetence and failure, but Mandela is far from the only dropout who’s gone on to live a remarkable life. In fact, many incredibly successful people struggled and eventually dropped out of school—the list includes world-class athletes like Tiger Woods, superstar performers like Brad Pitt, and some of the richest people in the world. Much like Mandela, these people found more urgent or more important goals to pursue than finishing college.)

Nelson Mandela’s Educational Background: Tenacity 101

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Here's what you'll find in our full Long Walk to Freedom summary:

  • Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary life story, as told by the man himself
  • Why it took Mandela over 40 years to finish his law degree
  • Nelson Mandela’s legacy and what South Africa is like in its post-apartheid years

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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