6 December 2013
As South Africans and the world pay tribute to former president Nelson Mandela, his contribution to education is set to continue to benefit many young minds long after he has departed.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his home village of Qunu, situated south-west of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, where he helped to transform several rundown schools into modern educational facilities.
During his presidency of the country, Mandela used his influence to attract donors to fund schools in what was then known as the Transkei (one of two “homelands” for Xhosa-speaking people set up under the Nationalist government during the apartheid era) to help in the building of new classrooms and moving children out of dilapidated mud structures.
One of the schools to have benefited from Madiba’s efforts is Qunu Junior Primary, which was turned into a modern school with state-of-the-art computer and biology laboratories after his visit there in 1996.
The school, on the other side of a hill from Qunu, also happens to be the first primary school Mandela himself attended at the age of seven. During his schooldays, it consisted of a single room.
Mandela paid several visits to the school after it was renovated, inviting a couple of its learners to his Johannesburg home for one of his birthday celebrations.
“His association with the school and the contributions he made is what keeps us strong and we are a very proud school indeed,” school principal Zwelethemba Mki said. “He has done a lot for us and other schools in the area and for that, he has become such a motivation to the kids here.”
Mki said Mandela had personally phoned him to urge the teachers to ensure that all its learners were computer literate from Grade 1. “He said, ‘Look, you have everything you want, now just make sure the learners are equipped with all the knowledge they need. They must use computers at a very early age’.”
Not far from Qunu Primary is Nkalane Junior Secondary School, which overlooks Mandela’s homestead. The school’s old mud buildings have also been replaced with classrooms.
A multi-million rand technical school has also been built in Qokolweni village, situated about 20 kilometres from Mthatha and about 15 kilometres from Qunu. The school caters for more than 1 000 pupils from 10 surrounding villages and townships, and doubles as a night school for adult literacy classes and a community skills training centre.
Here, learners described Mandela as an icon who had changed their future for the better.
“I can not even describe how grateful we are to have had someone like him … He changed our lives, he changed the way we thought about ourselves and most importantly, he showed us that in life you can achieve anything irrespective of your background,” said Grade 8 learner Samkelo Gebengu at the time of the interview.
For him and fellow pupil, Thobani Sandla, the name Nelson Mandela serves as an inspiration and motivation to get a good education.
Thobani said: “Even though some of us may not necessarily follow the same path in politics, Tata’s respect for education speaks volumes about him and we will always keep that at the back of our minds.”