Nelson Mandela

I feel so grateful that this week, I was in South Africa to meet with Executive Directors who run independent education associations around the world.

On Tuesday night, on our way to a restaurant, our taxi driver stopped in front of Mandela’s house.  The guards gave us a questioning look, but our taxi driver wanted us to notice the painted rocks surrounding the trees around his home – people, mostly children, paint messages on rocks and leave them for him.

Last Friday, we took a boat out to Robben Island, home of the prison where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he spent jailed.  Our tour guide, a former prisoner, told us that he remembers one day when the international media was going to tour the prison, and Mandela was given new clothes including shoes to wear for the photos.  He pointed to the photo to show the differences between Mandela in the foreground and the reality of the place in the background.  He also showed us the place where Mandela hid his writings (see pic below) and told us my favourite story.  Mandela gave a copy of his book to a friend, and it is a good thing he did since the authorities destroyed what they thought was his only copy of his writings.  Years later, when Mandela was President, he gave this fellow prisoner a position in the government in honour of his role in sneaking the writing off the island.  With his famous sense of humour, Mandela appointed him to be the Minister of Transportation.

His room, which has been preserved, had a window with no glass so his winters were harsh with only two blankets.  It is small, cold, and bare.  His days were filled with hard labour; we saw the quarry where the men worked in the direct sun, and the cave where the men took short breaks, the only time they were able to talk with each other – they call it the “home of democracy.”  When Mandela returned and met with former inmates, he placed a rock down in the quarry, and without this being planned, other former prisoners followed suit one at a time in silence. That pile of rocks remains in the middle of the quarry.

I get overwhelmed when I think about what he went on to do when he was finally free.  In addition to his many world accomplishments, I am most impressed that he forgave his enemies and encouraged others to do the same.  Today, Robben Island is just one small but perfect example of Mandela’s vision of truth and reconciliation, as former prisoners and guards live on the island and give tours to the public to teach the world to love.

Everyone I met told their Mandela story – about where they were when he was released and about their favourite quotations.  Last night I received this email from our South African host:

“You will have heard today about the passing away of Nelson Mandela last night and our hearts are very heavy because such a beloved and great man has left us. You have indeed visited us at the end of an era in South African history.

You may have seen these quotes of his before, but they can inspire us in our work in education:

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

“A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”

I can only imagine what Mandela’s house looks like today, with crowds heading to pay tribute to their hero.  I read one article about celebrities laying flowers, but if you look closely at the photos, others are laying rocks as well.

p.s.  I hope you spend some time reflecting on the life of Mandela, and I hope that you share his stories with children so that his legacy lives:

  • See the new movie called Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and read Morgan Freeman’s comments on portraying Mandela here

2 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela

  1. “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” – Nelson Mandela

    My 13-year old and 10-year old sons both talked about Mandela today in their respective schools and with me and my husband at home around the dinner table. I told them about your blog post and your trip to Robben Island.

    In the Jewish tradition, it is customary to leave stones on top of a tombstone when you visit a grave to pay respects. The boys were very attracted to the idea of stone memorials and their significance related to Mandela’s life. I told them that while he was imprisoned, Mandela, together with fellow prisoners like Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu used their time in the quarry to teach each other literature, philosophy and political theory, among other things. And my 10-year old piped right up and said ‘because learning can happen anywhere, not just in school’.

    Stones endure when flowers wither and fade. In moments when we are faced with the fragility of life stones remind us that there is permanence amidst the pain. While other things fade, stones and souls endure, just like the triumphant story of Nelson Mandela.

    Thanks for this post.

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