Yesterday, the world recognized the death of Nelson Mandela with tributes from leaders of the world, leaders in his homeland of South Africa, and citizens everywhere. It would be hard to imagine anyone over the age of 18 who does not know who Mr. Mandela was. Imprisoned for treason during the apartheid era in South Africa, Mr. Mandela spent 27 years behind bars until his release in 1990. Four years later, he was elected as the first black president during South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in April 1994. The subsequent transition of power was peacefully accomplished thanks to his leadership.
In 2009, I had the opportunity to visit South Africa with a group of my doctoral classmates from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. We visited the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, and the University of Pretoria to see how South Africa’s higher education system had adapted to change. We also visited major cities and the surrounding countryside to see firsthand life in South Africa 15 years after the end of apartheid. Prior to the trip, I read Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” The book provided me with a perspective on the conditions in South Africa during Mandela’s life up to his 1994 election as president. It enlightened my visits to Robben Island (the notorious prison off of the coast of Cape Town), the District Six Museum in Cape Town, the Soweto township in Johannesburg, and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg.
No matter whom I talked to during my trip, his or her respect for Mr. Mandela was universal even 10 years after his single term as president had ended. Whether it was a guide at Robben Island who had been imprisoned there at the same time as Mr. Mandela, or a museum volunteer, all were uniform in their praise for his leadership during an uncertain and unprecedented time of transition. I left the country with a better sense of the challenges during apartheid, during the first few years after Mr. Mandela’s release, and during his time as president. The educators I met with at the universities provided me with their perspectives on the difficult task of education for all—particularly those who had received substandard elementary and high school educations. Mr. Mandela’s party had rewritten the law to provide for equal education, but acknowledged that the process would take years to complete.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,”
is one of Nelson Mandela’s most frequently quoted statements. I hope that his legacy and memory provides others with the motivation to improve education in their communities and countries.
Rest in peace, Mr. Mandela.