Our Story

Our vision of building exceptional leadership in Africa

The Mandela Rhodes Foundation is one of Nelson Mandela’s three official legacy organisations, founded in 2003 in partnership with the Rhodes Trust. Our mission is to build exceptional leadership capacity in Africa. We find, fund, and empower young Africans who aspire towards the kind of leadership Mr Mandela embodied: leaders who can bridge historic divides and who use their talents for the betterment of their societies and our continent.

Founding Partnership: Nelson Mandela and the Rhodes Trust

In 2002 Professor Jakes Gerwel and Dr John Rowett had a counterintuitive idea.

Professor Gerwel was the Chancellor of Rhodes University in South Africa and a Trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and Dr John Rowett was the CEO of the Rhodes Trust. Dr Rowett was visiting South Africa to attend meetings and to explore possibilities to mark a centenary of the world-renowned Rhodes Scholarships. Cecil Rhodes made his fortune in Southern Africa, and when he died in 1903 he left it in a Trust that established the Rhodes Scholarships. Professor Gerwel and Dr Rowett began to consider what it might mean to begin a new century with a partnership between the Rhodes Trust and the man who embodied South Africa’s new era of freedom – Mr Nelson Mandela. The Rhodes Trust approached Mr Mandela with an idea for a partnership: to return some of Mr Rhodes’ wealth to South Africa and Africa in a symbolic act of reconciliation and reparation.

Mr Mandela agreed to co-found the MRF with the Rhodes Trust. In becoming the Founding Patron he was fully conscious of the tension between his own life and legacy and that of Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes was an imperialist and a pioneer of the mining industry in colonial South Africa. The men who worked in the mines were separated from their families, who were forced by apartheid law to remain in remote homelands. For Southern Africans, Rhodes’ name is linked to some of the harshest realities of colonial rule. Mr Mandela proceeded with the partnership because he deeply believed in – and stood for – setting aside ideological differences to pursue right outcomes. He had successfully negotiated the transition to democracy and unified the nation by working with the difficult elements of the past and present to build a more just future. The partnership with the Rhodes Trust underlined Mr Mandela’s message and approach of reconciliation and reparation– of taking hands across historic divides that others may deem unbridgeable.

The Mandela Rhodes partnership is a reminder of the responsibility of all parties to participate in repairing the damage of colonial times and rebuilding a new and more just society of equal opportunity for all. The injunction to come together across historic divides is written into the preamble to the South African Constitution. When Mr Mandela was asked about the partnership with the Rhodes Trust, he would simply refer to and reiterate it. The preamble enjoins us to ‘heal the divisions of the past, and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice, and fundamental human rights, and to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.’

“Mr Mandela’s agreement to the joining together of the names of Nelson Mandela and Cecil John Rhodes – two famous but historically very different and contrary South African figures – was another example of Mandela not allowing his focus to be distracted by arguments that divide and impede progress. The generous approach by the century-old Rhodes Trust to enter into such a partnership was immediately met with a generosity of spirit that transcended historical ideological differences and concentrated on what could be good for the country and the continent.

It is that single-minded focus on improving the quality of life of people that The Mandela Rhodes Foundation seeks to capture and live out as one of the organisations established by and in the name of Nelson Mandela.”

— Professor Gerwel’s message to stakeholders of the MRF, 2005

Read Mr Mandela's founding speech at Westminster Hall, 2003.

From past to present: Who we are today

The Mandela Rhodes Foundation was established to build exceptional leadership in Africa. By this we mean developing leaders who pursue the realisation of true equality, of dignity and equal opportunity, and who have the courage to unite people in spite of their differences to achieve this vision of a better life for all. This is the leadership legacy of Nelson Mandela which we are tasked with cultivating in successive generations of young Africans.

To this end, we find, fund, and empower young Africans who aspire towards the kind of leadership Mr Mandela embodied. We provide a highly competitive postgraduate scholarship for future African leaders to study in South Africa and participate in a residential Leadership Development Programme. We believe that leadership begins with inner transformation, and our Programmes are built on our founding principles of reconciliation, education, entrepreneurship and leadership. These principles are also the characteristics that we look for when selecting Mandela Rhodes Scholars.

Read the Guiding principles of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

To date we have awarded over 500 Mandela Rhodes Scholarships to talented young leaders from 28 African countries. We entrust the impact of our work to our alumni. We therefore aim to support and amplify our alumni by providing ongoing leadership development opportunities and a public platform for thought leadership to increase our reach and impact in society.

History: Nelson Mandela and his legacy

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was South Africa’s first democratically elected president.

As a young man he was a freedom fighter who played a key role in launching the armed struggle for freedom, after attempts at negotiations with the apartheid government failed. He was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison during the Rivonia trial in 1964, becoming one of the world’s most revered political prisoners. Mr Mandela returned from prison in 1990. He returned with a call for reconciliation, uniting the people behind a shared vision of a new South Africa, regardless of their differences. He led the process of negotiation with the white minority government and opposition political parties, culminating in the first democratic election in 1994. Mr Mandela served one term as President of the Republic of South Africa. He stepped down in 1999, and remained actively committed to the cause of achieving fundamental freedoms and dignity for all. Mr Mandela passed away in 2013 at the age of 95.

Professor Jakes Gerwel was a prominent academic and a key advisor to Mr Mandela. Writing in his capacity as Founding Chairman of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, he describes Nelson Mandela and the many meanings of his life and legacy.

“Nelson Mandela – his life, his work, the corpus of his words, deeds and actions – embodies and manifests so much of what is good and noble in the human spirit that as a symbol he answers to the representational needs of an infinite range of human quests and yearnings. Some of us will remember him above all as one of the greatest, bravest and most courageous freedom fighters history has known: a person who was prepared to lay down his life in pursuit of the ideals of peace, progress, human solidarity and a better life for all people.

It was that courage that could see him choose to take up arms when all attempts at negotiating a just dispensation were dismissed and ignored; make him open negotiations with his oppressors while incarcerated in their jails; let him hold together and heal a deeply divided nation in one of the most inspirational acts of reconciliation and forgiving. The fighter and the peace-maker were never at odds with one another; they were integrally part of the same outstandingly courageous searcher after a better life for all people irrespective of social and other differences.”

— Professor Jakes Gerwel

After concluding his term as President in 1999, Mr Mandela continued to mediate conflicts internationally. He dedicated considerable effort to raising money for his charitable work aimed at improving the lives of children, and to destigmatising HIV/AIDS. Mr Mandela retired from public life in 2004, announcing that his work would be continued by his three official legacy organisations: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

“This does not mean that the work that we have been involved in, supported, and promoted, comes to an end. It has been our practise to establish organisations to do certain work and then to leave it to those organisations to get on with the job… our work will continue, perhaps in an even more focused way now that the attention shifts from the individual to the organisations.”

— Mr Mandela, 2004

The three legacy organisations are complementary, each giving expression to a specific aspect of human development and societal impact. The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund strives to change the way society treats its children and youth. The Nelson Mandela Foundation is home to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, giving practical expression to the memory and dialogue aspects of Mr Mandela’s legacy. The Mandela Rhodes Foundation was established to help build exceptional leadership capacity in Africa, which we do primarily through the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships and Leadership Development Programme.

The Mandela Rhodes Building

The combination of the Mandela and Rhodes legacies was underscored by a generous gift from the leaders of Rhodes’ mining company, De Beers. The Rhodes Building was built in 1902, and had functioned for decades as the offices of De Beers. The building was donated to The Mandela Rhodes Foundation by De Beers chairman Nicky Oppenheimer in 2003, and renamed The Mandela Rhodes Building. This gesture pleased Mr Mandela greatly.

“We are sometimes still asked by people how we could agree to have our name linked to that of Cecil John Rhodes in this Mandela Rhodes initiative. To us, the answer is easy and we have explained the logic of our decision on a number of occasions. We have referred to our Constitution’s injunction for us to come together across the historical divide, to build our country together into a future equally shared by all. The event of this morning gives a further concrete answer to that question. The erstwhile company of Cecil John Rhodes, in which members of the Oppenheimer family were such illustrious and great South African successors, has today once more demonstrated its commitment to transformation and, in fact, reparation.”

— Mr Mandela, speaking at the handover of the building, 2003

Read Mr Mandela's comments on the handover of the Mandela Rhodes Building.


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