‘I hold a bachelor’s degree in arts.” What a strange way to start your defence in court when your life literally hangs in the balance. Of all the things Nelson Mandela could invoke to kick off his 10699-word defence in the famous Rivonia Trial, he told the judge about his highest educational achievement. Having introduced himself as Accused Number 1, why would the statement “I hold a degree” matter? To even begin to understand the import of these remarkable words you have to place yourself within the context. It was 1964. In that year only 298 Africans passed “matric” with university entrance and a mere 98 were awarded bachelor’s degrees in the previous year. Even today holding a first degree would distinguish a young South African from disadvantaged communities; in the 1960s such an achievement would have been stupendous.
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