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Published On: Mon, Oct 12th, 2015

What Nelson Mandela can teach us about lifelong, dialogue-rich learning

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 Nelson Mandela was a lawyer, an activist, a political prisoner and a president. He was also a man who loved learning. Reuters


Nelson Mandela was a lawyer, an activist, a political prisoner and a president. He was also a man who loved learning. Reuters

Nelson Mandela’s life and writings reveal his fascination with education. The late statesman’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, often profiles characters by their education and what he learnt from them. Mandela pursued his own learning actively, curiously and indefatigably in many different settings.

He is also an exemplar of a lifelong learning that is profoundly dialogic in nature. This entails a kind of learning that involves continuing, interlinked dialogues with others, oneself and the world around one. It is central to developing as a person. In Mandela’s case this learning was based on the values of openness, humility, critical reflection and commitment to justice.

So, what lessons can others who wish never to stop learning draw from Mandela’s example?

Traditional learning and lessons in leadership

Mandela’s education can be understood as a layered cake but with interfusing ingredients. The first layer was a traditional Thembu upbringing in South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape province. This steeped him in oral tradition and history. His civic education came from watching Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people, hold court at his Great Place.

These were tribal meetings to discuss matters of importance to the Thembu. All Thembu were free to attend and anyone who wanted to speak did so.

In this way, Mandela learnt a style of leadership which emphasised listening to everyone’s views – including criticism of the leader himself – as well as discerning, summarising and “endeavouring to find a consensus”, as he recalls in his autobiography. Democracy, he learnt, meant hearing everyone and taking a decision together as a people.

Formal schooling

The second layer was a formal primary and secondary schooling at Wesleyan mission institutions. Although he rebelled against colonial attitudes and authorities, he retained an abiding legacy of mission education: he admired parliamentary democracy, a Christian value system of service, decorum and good conduct, and the English language as a unifying force against ethnic divisions.

Mandela’s higher education was perhaps not as significant for its formal instruction as for relationships and informal learning. At what was then the University College of Fort Hare he was exposed to African role models like academic, author and African National Congress (ANC) stalwart ZK Matthews.

At the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the man who would one day become South Africa’s first democratically elected and first black president met progressive law students of different races and backgrounds. His professional education included his law degree – but more profoundly, his practical law experience.

As a legal clerk at the only white law firm that would take on black employees, he learnt from his mentor Lazar Sidelsky “to serve our country” and that law could be used “to change society”.

Nelson Mandela embraces a graduating university student. Jim Bourg/Reuters

Later, as a partner in Mandela and Tambo, he was conscientised by the myriad sufferings of black people at the hands of the apartheid machinery. In Long Walk to Freedom he writes:

We heard and saw the thousands of humiliations that ordinary Africans confronted every day of their lives.

A political education

Mandela’s political education was strongly influenced by popular struggles. He participated in the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s, a massive and non-violent response to the apartheid government’s racist laws. During the 1960s, after organisations like the ANC had been banned, he remained involved in the movement underground.

The “prison education” of Robben Island, where Mandela spent more than two decades after being convicted of sabotage, was the final layer of learning.

Here, Mandela learned about how to survive in extreme conditions. Prison was another site in the greater struggle to liberate South Africa. While learning the practical value of collective strength and solidarity, Mandela also learnt to cultivate relationships, especially with prison warders, seeing even hostile enemies as human beings and potential allies.

Dialogic lifelong learning

Through all these layers of education, Mandela exemplified dialogic lifelong learning. It was life-wide, lifelong and life-deep. First, he learnt through dialogue with others. These included friends and mentors like Walter Sisulu and Anton Lembede in the ANC Youth League – but also Communists, who were both rivals and comrades.

He gleaned lessons and insights even from enemies like prison warders and National Party ministers. He was able to transcend the dehumanising view of “the other” inculcated by colonialism and apartheid with a humanising view of “another”: a human being with his or her own particular personality, history and formation. Secure in himself, this transcendence did not involve surrendering his standpoint or denying differences.

Second, he learnt through dialogue with himself. At crucial moments, he was able to reflect critically on what had happened and what it meant. Sometimes an uncomfortable encounter prompted this. In the 1940s he met the Basotho queen regent and she reproached him for not being able to speak Sesotho.

“What kind of lawyer and leader will you be who can’t speak the language of your own people?” she demanded. This prompted Mandela’s shift in attitude from Thembu tribalist to a South African nationalist who embraced all of its peoples and languages.

Third, Mandela showed a continuing learning dialogue with the collective of the ANC. Its history, ethos and policies were a constant reference point for him, even though at times he contested policy, disobeyed it and even took secret initiatives leading into uncharted territory. Nevertheless, the collective of the ANC was the frame for his learning through nearly seven decades.

Perhaps the most striking of Mandela’s learning dialogues was with his changing context. He could read and respond to the signs of the times in very different settings – such as when re-entering public life as a septuagenarian in the 1990s in an extremely volatile national and global context.

These four moments of Mandela’s dialogic lifelong learning – dialogue with others, with self, with the collective and with context – are not discrete. They constantly interact.

At his trial in 1961, Mandela declared:

The struggle is my life.

From his life and his struggle, his own dialogic lifelong learning stands out as a key attribute and legacy.

  1. Peter Rule

Senior Lecturer, Adult Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal

Disclosure statement

Peter Rule does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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The University of KwaZulu-Natal provides support as an endorsing partner of The Conversation AFRICA.

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