The South African university once seen as the intellectual home of apartheid has angered some of its alumni by proposing an honorary degree for the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela during his treason trial 40 years ago.

The University of Stellenbosch, outside Cape Town, approved a proposal to give a posthumous doctorate to Bram Fischer - an anti-apartheid activist who gained fame as Mandela's lawyer and was himself jailed in 1966.

"One of the criteria for this award is that the person must be a role model," said Tertius Delport, formerly of the apartheid-era ruling National Party and now of the opposition Democratic Alliance.

"As a Stalinist and a Communist, how can he be seen as a role model for the University of Stellenbosch?"

Jailed for being a leading communist, Oxford-educated Fischer died of cancer in 1975. He has since been frequently hailed as a voice of white conscience opposed to apartheid.

Stellenbosch researcher Yvonne Malan, who nominated Fischer, accused detractors of clinging to old notions of the white Afrikaner community, which put apartheid in place and agreed in 1994 to step aside for multiracial democracy.

"What they don't realise is that Stellenbosch is part of the larger South Africa. According to them the Afrikaner community is angry but they don't speak for the Afrikaner community."