Initially most students who came to study from South Africa intended to study medical degrees, many of those who came to study prior to 1900 chose not to graduate. The first student was Tiyo Soga, who attended in 1851. The first graduate was Abdullah Abdurahman in 1893. As became a common pattern, their sons would in turn attend Glasgow and go on to partake in shaping their country's future.

Our first South African Rector was Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli, who was widely admired for leading a non-violent campaign against apartheid in South Africa. He had to serve remotely as Rector from 1962 until 1965 as he was not able to leave South Africa. Throughout the 1960s, 70s 80s the student body at the University of Glasgow was involved in anti-apartheid protests, as evidenced in the student newspaper, Guardian.

It was also in this vein that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was elected University Rector from 1987 until 1990, as a focus for those campaigning in South Africa and abroad for the release of her then imprisoned husband and an end to apartheid. Calls were made for her resignation as Rector in 1989 amidst the controversy surrounding her actions and on the grounds that she had devalued the office by showing scant regard for the rule of law.