One of British Jewry’s leading figures recalls his anti-apartheid student days, when Natasha Kaplinsky’s dad led a sit-in, and how today’s students will benefit from an award granted on the day of Mandela’s funeral, writes Prof. David Katz.

For four young South African post-graduate students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Nelson Mandela’s funeral was memorable for another reason: it was the day that the first ‘Spirit of 68 Fund’ awards were announced, which will enable them to continue their studies.

These awards are the outcome of an unusual reunion event which took place in 2008.

Forty years before, in 1968 – in the early days of Mandela’s imprisonment, when South African political protest was at a low ebb – a student group staged a sit-in at UCT, protesting against the authorities’ refusal to appoint a black candidate to a lecturer post.

At the reunion participants – including many Jews – recalled that there had been mixed reactions from their families. Some were enthusiastic but others cut off contact. Holocaust survivor parents who were supportive of anti-racist action nonetheless insisted that their children go home. Several said they had learned lessons about protest and non-violence that had a lasting impact on their lives.

Reflecting on these memories the reunion group (including several now living in the UK), resolved to endow several scholarships for post graduate research, focusing specifically on the theme of social exclusion.

The selection committee – which included Prof Raphael Kaplinsky (father of TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, and one of the sit-in leaders) and Prof David Katz (who was then chair of the South African Medical Student Association) – chose very diverse projects from over 60 applicants.

One student will look at the role of theatre-making as a tool for township youth to improve their social situation. Another will explore the approaches to sexuality and relationships needs of young adults with intellectual disabilities. In the medical field there is a project examining low rates of cervical screening among black South Africans, while in architecture the student will look at how new township environments are being created post-apartheid.

“We wanted to create a dynamic memorial which looked at a question that was central to the sit-in ideals but remains topical to-day,” says Prof. Katz.

“The sense of racist exclusion, highlighted by Mandela as one of the most humiliating features of apartheid, may have gone. But there remain other forms of exclusion and intolerance of diversity, which remain to be eliminated in 2013.”