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Nelson Mandela went to a one-room schoolhouse. So do many South African students today.
Photo caption: Thousands of rural South African students must attend school in sub-standard, mud-walled schoolhouses. This picture shows a basic South African classroom, but there are hundreds of schools that do not even reach this level. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)
QUNU, South Africa — Nelson Mandela’s first day of school was in a makeshift classroom in a mud-walled hut.
Mandela, then 7 years old, was the first person in his family to go to school, and his father dressed him for the big day, cutting off a pair of his pants at the knees to make them child-sized and then cinching them around his son’s waist with a piece of string.
“I must have been a comical sight, but I have never owned a suit I was prouder to wear than my father’s cut-off trousers,” Mandela recalled in his autobiography.
The schoolhouse, Mandela wrote, “consisted of a single room with a Western-style roof,” perched on a hill overlooking the village of Qunu. Visitors to the area today can still see the ruins of the collection of rondavels — traditional round huts — that formed Mandela’s missionary-run primary school.
“It was used as a classroom during the week, and a church on the weekend,” said Zimisele Gamakulu, a guide at the nearby Nelson Mandela Museum, which stands in what was once an open field where young Mandela would herd cattle with other boys. “This was his playing ground."
More than eight decades later, students in Qunu now attend class in a tidy modern school that was built next to the future South African president’s mud schoolhouse. But while Mandela’s old primary school has become a relic visited by tourists, some students in South Africa still go to class in mud and straw structures much like the one that Mandela would have attended in the mid-1920s.
In the Eastern Cape province, which includes the poverty-stricken area where Mandela grew up, there are still 395 mud schools — down from 939 in 2004 — and there are many more in other poor, rural parts of the country. The rough schools persist despite years of promises by various levels of government to eradicate what the Eastern Cape education department calls “inappropriate structures.”
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After a few years at his mud school, Mandela moved on from Qunu and was sent to what was, at the time, one of the best boarding schools open to black African students. But even today, some South African students must see out their high-school years in tiny, uncomfortable mud-walled classrooms.
Students and teachers complain that mud schools are freezing cold in the winter, overheated in the summer and uncomfortable when it rains. They have poor sanitation, with no toilets or running water, and often have no electricity, so children must squint to read the blackboard — if there even is one.