The recent death of Nelson Mandela has generated much reflection about his life and legacy. The celebrations of his long life — interrupted by 27 years as a political prisoner — include praise for his strength of spirit, unflinching dedication to equality and his willingness to act upon his moral beliefs, even when it threatened his own life.
In his later years, Mandela turned his considerable influence toward education. While his actions may not have had much discernible effect on the education systems of Europe or North America, Mandela’s educational initiatives stretched across the entire African continent.
Nelson Mandela believed that education is “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” As we learn the sad news of his death, we remember Mandela’s legacy and profound contribution to education in Africa.
“Today we have all lost a hero, a powerful champion for children,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director. “He started his own children’s fund and fought passionately, with his wife, Graça Machel, and the Global Movement for Children and UNICEF, to put children at the heart of the global development agenda.”
In 2004, the Nelson Mandela Foundation co-founded the Schools for Africa initiative with UNICEF and the Hamburg Society (now the Peter Kramer Foundation). “Madiba touched the lives of millions of children. They are a central part of his legacy,” said Lake on the UNICEF website.
The Mandela Foundation has helped build over 140 schools. These Mandela Schools have been the focus of a development program. One of the objectives is to create centers of excellence in learning and teaching within communities. The Foundation strives for a deeper understanding of how rural communities view education and how they can improve their own lives. The Foundation tries to bring a deeper understanding between policy makers and the communities who need their help.
Even though many of the troubles in our own education system can largely be described as “first world problems”, we can still be inspired by Mandela’s belief in the power of education. Even in the U.S., education needs champions to make sure that primary and secondary students are being offered the best possible quality of instruction, materials and opportunities. Higher education must be affordable and accessible. And not hijacked by political self-dealing or mired in bottomless bureaucracy.
A voice like Mandela’s managed to slash through such problems in Africa. His legacy offers a lot to inspire us toward improving access to and the quality of education here.