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How Nelson Mandela became a Leiden Honorary Doctor

Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, who died on 5 december 2013, received an honorary doctorate from Leiden University in 1999. Mandela’s response was modest: ‘It is not a personal achievement. It is a tribute to all those who emerged from underground, from prison, from exile...’


If you watch the television footage of that sunny day on 12 March 1999 you will notice quite a contrast. As he arrives at the Pieterskerk in Leiden, Mandela seems extremely happy and relaxed. Smiling, he waves at the cheering crowds behind the barriers. Once inside and seated next to Queen Beatrix, however, he receives his honorary doctorate with great solemnity. The then 80-year-old Mandela was awarded the title during his two-day state visit to the Netherlands. Leiden University rarely awards an honorary doctorate to non-academics, but makes an exception for individuals who have made an extraordinary contribution to upholding the University motto: Praesidium Libertatis, Bastion of Freedom.

War of ideas

Mandela was the perfect example of an individual who has earned this title, said the then Rector Magnificus Willem Wagenaar. Wagenaar, who has since passed away, was Mandela’s honorary supervisor. In his address to Mandela he said: ‘Mr president, you have set such an example by changing almost singlehandedly the destiny of an entire nation in a situation in which violence would have destroyed the country. Your patience, resilience, faith, tolerance, wisdom and most of all your loyalty to the principle of reason are a great example. Your war was above all a war of ideas. Your strategy was resolution. Your shield was trust. Your sword was enlightenment. It is our university’s mission to generate ideas that lead to freedom. We honour you as a true defender of freedom.’.


Nelson Mandela komt aan bij de Pieterskerk. Naast hem Loek Vredevoogd, destijds voorzitter College van Bestuur.
Nelson Mandela arrives in the Pieterskerk. Beside him Loek Vredevoogd, then President of the Executive Board.


Mandela Scholarship Fund

The honorary doctorate was a personal distinction for President Mandela, said Wagenaar, but the University also wanted to honour the people of South Africa who had ‘supported such a wise president’. The University therefore decided to set up the Mandela Scholarship Fund in their honour. This fund, which is still awarded today, allows South African students to study for a year in Leiden. For the first time during the ceremony, a broad smile appeared on Mandela’s face. For him, education is crucial. ‘Education is the strongest weapon that you can use to change the world,’ were his inspiring words.

Mandela's acceptance speech

Mandela showed his customary modesty in his acceptance speech: ‘It is indeed a very special honour to receive an honorary doctorate from this old and eminent university. But I am also aware that such an award brings responsibility as well as honour. For the rest of my life I will cherish with humility the memory of being associated with great individuals for whom this was their intellectual home. I am aware it is not a personal achievement that you are recognising. It is the achievement of a people who remained faithful to the ideas of just law and reconciliation, even when we lived under an oppressive rule. It is a tribute to all those who emerged from underground, from prison, from exile and who were imprisoned in the towns and villages of our country.’

Signature in 'Sweat Room'

Mandela emphasised the responsibility that a university bears: ‘The responsibility of the university must be to ensure the wellbeing of the people, to enrich our minds and to constantly renew our spirit.’ At the end of the ceremony Mandela walked hand in hand with Queen Beatrix through the Pieterskerk. It proved a bridge too far for the elderly president to walk to the Academy Building. He therefore adjourned to an historic wooden lectern in the Pieterskerk and signed a tile there. Since then the tile has hung in the Sweat Room of the Academy Building.

Mythical figure

Willem Otterspeer, Leiden Professor of University History, was present at the ceremony in the Pieterskerk. How does he look back onthis historic occasion? ‘On the one hand, you experience the mythology of a figure who really did create history, but you also try to maintain your academic distance. Emotion won in the Pieterskerk. If anyone has ever truly earned a honorary doctorate for upholding the principle of Praesidium Libertatis, tha person has to be Nelson Mandela. What leaders do is crucial, particularly in situations of war and conflict. When legendary figures set a good example, it has a huge effect.’

(6 December 2013 - LvP)

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