Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE), penned this commentary on South African leader Nelson Mandela, who died Dec. 5, 2013, at age 95.
The revered Nobel Peace Prize winner, former leader of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, died yesterday as I write this. His is a story for all of us, from militant leader of the African National Congress and its military wing to long-term prisoner to the first democratically elected president of his nation and to world’s statesman.
But, in that biography, there are lessons for all of us about courage, commitment, communications and compromise. And, yes, about education.
His death holds special significance for me. As you might know, my wife, Megan, was born in South Africa and much of her family still lives there. We visited two years ago and plan to return this summer. I have watched through their eyes this amazing history.
I first went to South Africa in 1980, when Megan and I got married. Apartheid, the separation of the races, was still the law. We were shielded from seeing the worst of this abhorrent system, since whites were not allowed to go into black areas, such as the sprawling city of Soweto.
But, in 2000, years after Mandela’s release from prison in the early 1990s and after he had retired from the presidency, we took a trip to Soweto where we saw his original home, small, yet comfortable, but we were aware that he had been arrested there. It was very moving to think that the man who become such a beloved statesman had lived so modestly.
When we visited in 2010, his 90th birthday was celebrated in the media with articles about Madiba—his clan name, which is used as a sign of respect and affection.
Mandela, who was hunted, brought to trial and convicted twice and spent 27 years in prison, originally on stark, bleak Robben Island, four miles off the coast of Capetown. Contrary to what people might think, he was not a man without anger after his release from prison. However, as Richard Stengel, former Time editor-in-chief and Mandela biographer stated, he knew he needed to hide the bitterness of having been taken away from his wife and children, able to meet with ONE person for 30 minutes ONCE a year and allowed to receive ONE letter every six months. If he was to lead the nation, he could not retaliate for the losses he and other African National Congress leaders and followers had suffered.
It would have torn his nation apart.
To me, this is one of the most amazing feats of “turning the other cheek” in history. Think about it: once he had power, instead of revenge, his government set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—in which whites who had tortured, killed and oppressed blacks, including those in the army or secret police, had to confess their sins. But, after that confession, they served no jail time, were not fined and were allowed to return home. No one was sent to Robben Island.
It is a tourist attraction today.
Mandela gave up his power after one term and even surrendered some authority to his successor before he left office. Like our own George Washington, he understood the need to prepare those who would come after him. He hated the idea of being a President for life, which he could have easily been. That alone is a model for others, especially in Africa, where this does not often happen.
Mandela on Education
In Mandela’s view, education was critical if the blacks of South Africa and others around the world were to thrive. He was an attorney, his legal training at the University of Witwatersrand. Could you imagine what courage that took, especially as he was taunted with epithets and other indignities?
While on Robben Island, this remarkable man learned Afrikaans, the language of his oppressors and studied their thinking and their culture. He felt he had to do this in order to understand his enemies. He became a master of emotional intelligence, able to put himself in the shoes of his jailers.
Thus, the remarkable turning point of getting the support of the whites of Africa came when he emerged from a tunnel into a bright rugby stadium wearing the shirt of the Springboks, the symbol of white South Africa Later captured beautifully in “Invictus”). It was then that he showed in such a vivid way that he “got” it—that he understood the fear and anxiety that whites had in a country where they were suddenly without the power that they had all grown up with.
He spoke many times about education. It was his belief that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” He urged his people to” make every home, every shack or rickety structure a centre of learning”.
The South Africa of today is still a nation with many challenges. When we were last there, we had the chance to visit two schools in the suburbs of Johannesburg.
In a private school, the children had easy access to computers, the rooms had all the supplies the teachers needed and there was a feeling of optimism among those we talked to.
The public schools are dependent on federal funding, which just covers the basics. There was no music, art or athletics in the school we visited, because these are paid for by the community. It was 100 percent black, and though there were caring administrators, there were no supplies in the laboratories and little else that we would take for granted in our country.
That is not a recipe for long-term success for either the students or the nation. But, Mandela’s greatest characteristic might have been his ability to dream of a better future under even ghastly pressure. What he left to his nation, the children in that public school and to us, is the lesson that perseverance, a strong moral compass and the ability to understand and work with others can lead to unheard of success.
For most people, this is the type of legacy that is rarely within a person’s reach. But, even accomplishing a piece of it, whether through our daily lives, our service to others or our willingness to live up to our dreams and, as Lincoln would say, the better angels of our nature, we can help make this a better world for those who come after us.
Goodbye, Madiba. And, thank you.