Nelson Mandela was the only black student at the University of Witwatersrand
It was when Mandela moved from the liberal Cape to the far more white nationalist Transvaal, with its economic capital of Johannesburg, that he encountered institutionalized racism for the first time. The University of the Witwatersrand, or ‘Wits’ as it is better known, is today, as it was then, one of South Africa’s premier universities, and it was gifted young black student indeed who was able to rush the barriers of this institution based on nothing but his determination and his ability.
It was at Wits that Mandela began studying law, and it was there that his political consciousness began to mature. The Transvaal in general, and Johannesburg in particular, were highly racist, far more so than anything Mandela had experienced before. He arrived at Wits in 1943, and he left in 1949, a period of six years which encompasses the end of British control of South Africa and the establishment of a South African Republic. That republic was dominated by a corps of white right-wing Afrikaner nationalists determined that the social and political culture of the nation would remain white. The first formal apartheid laws were not far behind, and by the 1950s, South Africa was a society delineated by statutory racism that deeply prejudiced the indigenous black majority.
While at the University of Witwatersrand, Mandela met a great many political activists, both white and black, and he became deeply involved in the emerging antiapartheid movement. The African National Congress was at that time yet to be established as a mass movement, and black political organization was a few steps behind the times. It was Mandela who founded the ANC Youth League as a vehicle for mass mobilization, and historians universally agree that this was the turning point in the South Africa Struggle