Late President Mandela’s academic life and legal career

April 1st, 2014

By Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele

Following the passing of former President Nelson Mandela on 5 December 2013 at the age of 95, De Rebus contacted the President of the Law Society of the Northern Provinces (LSNP), Dr Llewellyn Curlewis for more information on former President Mandela’s academic life and legal career.

Dr Curlewis said that according to records at the LSNP offices, Mr Mandela began his studies for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University College of Fort Hare but did not complete the degree there as he was expelled for joining a student protest. He completed his BA through the University of South Africa and went back to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943. During the early 1940s in Johannesburg, Walter Sisulu introduced him to Lazer Sidelsky and he did his articles at Witkin Eidelman Sidelsky.During his time at university, Mr Mandela became increasingly aware of the racial inequality and injustice faced by non-whites. In 1944, he decided to join the African National Congress and actively took part in the struggle against apartheid. He began studying for an LLB degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. By his own admission he was a poor student and left the university in 1948 without graduating.

Dr Curlewis said that during 1949 the minimum qualification for entering the profession was the Attorney’s Diploma (Dip Proc) followed by five years of articles. He said that this is how Mr Mandela qualified as an attorney on 27 March 1952.  He and his friend Oliver Tambo opened the first black legal practice, Mandela & Tambo, in South Africa in 1952, giving affordable and often free advice to black people who could otherwise not afford it.

Dr Curlewis said that as one of the few qualified black lawyers, Nelson Mandela was in great demand.  He added that his commitment to the cause saw him promoted through the ranks of the ANC. In 1956, Mr Mandela, along with several other members of the ANC were arrested and charged with treason. After a lengthy and protracted court case the defendants were finally acquitted in 1961. According to Dr Curlewis, with the ANC now banned, Nelson Mandela suggested an active armed resistance to the apartheid regime. This led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, which would act as a guerrilla resistance movement. Receiving training in other African countries, Umkhonto we Sizwe took part in active sabotage.

Dr Curlewis said that in 1963, Mr Mandela was again arrested and put on trial for treason. He said that this time the state succeeded in convicting Mr Mandela of plotting to overthrow the government.

In 1989, while in the last months of his imprisonment, the late former President obtained an LLB degree through the University of South Africa. He graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town.

Roll of honour

Dr Curlewis said that Mr Mandela was taken up in the roll of honour of the LSNP for his contribution to the attorneys’ profession and participation in bringing democracy and freedom to the people of South Africa.  Dr Curlewis added that there are two other people that the LSNP council honoured in this way, namely, Mahatma Gandhi and former President FW de Klerk.

His practice

Dr Curlewis gave an outline of Mr Mandela’s legal career according to the LSNP’s archives. He said that on –

  • 5 September 1952 Mr Mandela advised the law society that he was practising on his own;
  • 4 December 1953 he informed the law society that he was in partnership with Oliver Tambo;
  • 8 January 1961 he notified the law society that he was practising as a professional assistant;
  • 7 June 1961 the law society was informed that Mr Mandela was no longer employed as a professional assistant but that he was doing ‘odd jobs’ at the magistrates’ court. When the treason trial resumed, he left to attend to the trial.
  • 5 July 1961 the law society was informed by Germiston law firm, H Davidoff and Herman that Mr Mandela had ceased practising.

When asked to talk about the court case when the then Transvaal Law Society applied to strike him from the roll, Dr Curlewis said that Mr Mandela was admitted as an attorney in the then Transvaal province after having served a contract of three years with Witkin Eidelman & Sidelsky. Shortly thereafter, his career took a political turn and he was involved in the political struggle for the abolition of the pass laws and other measures of enforced racial segregation as well as the enforcing of the right of non-whites to vote.

Dr Curlewis said that as a result of his actions, he was found guilty of contravening the provisions of the Suppression of Communism Act 44 of 1950 and because of this, an application was made to strike his name from the attorneys’ roll.

‘The court refused to entertain this application and found that, although his actions could be regarded in a serious light, he was motivated by an urge to be of service to fellow non-whites. This was not sufficient reason for striking his name from the roll,’ he said.

According to Incorporated Law Society, Transvaal v Mandela 1954 (3) SA 102 (T), the court also found that Mr Mandela must not be punished again by being struck from the roll or suspended. The court found that he would only be struck off if what he had done showed that he was unworthy to remain in the ranks of an honourable profession. This contention proceeds, again, on the incorrect assumption that is the court’s function to punish an attorney who has been convicted of an offence. The application was dismissed.

The LSNP also paid tribute to Mr Mandela at the time of his death. In a statement, Dr Curlewis said that the LSNP was sad to learn of his passing and added that the LSNP council mourns and celebrates ‘the life of one of South Africa’s well-known and well-loved attorneys.’

‘He served on many international institutions. He gave meaning to the principle of the rule of law. He fought for equality, freedom and democracy.  We will continue to promote and protect his legacy and the principles for which he fought’, he stated. He added that Mr Mandela would be remembered as a lawyer who had courage and took the initiative to open the very first black attorneys firm in Johannesburg.

Nomfundo Manyathi-Jele,

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2014 (April) DR 4.