Editor's note: This series about Nelson Mandela's home village describes South Africa's past and points the way to its future. Where tradition vies with modern leadership. Where Mandela was no saint. Where rural poverty persists.
QUNU, South Africa — As a school boy in this village where Nelson Mandela came of age, Onke Ngxekana would sometimes see Mandela’s helicopter clatter in over the rolling landscape and touch down.
Then he and other school children would run across the highway to Mandela’s house and press their faces up against the fence to catch a glimpse.
“He would come by the fence and greet you,” Ngxekana said, recalling Mandela’s imposing height and the usual subject of inquiry. “He would ask us if we had passed our grades.”
Ngxekana, who is in the 11th grade now, is proud to be from the same village as his hometown hero and the leader who shaped modern South Africa. He is too young to remember apartheid and he was only a baby when peace talks led to South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994. But he’s old enough to know that South Africa’s education system is failing him and many around him. He’s old enough to know that the same struggle to provide quality education for all that existed when Mandela went to school here is still very much alive.
“Education is very unequal in South Africa,” said Ngxekana. “There is still a gap between the educated and the poor."
Qunu is the village where Mandela grew up in the 1920s and where, after his release from prison in 1990, he built a country house in the midst of the fields and hills where he had once played as a child. First he built a replica of the prison cottage he had stayed in just before his release, saying that he found it comfortable and familiar. Later he upgraded to a Tuscan-style mansion.
For some of the children from Qunu and nearby villages — like Ngxekana, who is now 18 — growing up in the area where Mandela was born and raised has provided inspiration and opportunities, putting them on the road to becoming the next generation of young leaders.
Many others still are held back by the poor quality of the Eastern Cape province’s education system, and the pernicious legacy of the apartheid system that restricted education for black people. More than one in four adults in the Eastern Cape is illiterate, according to government statistics.
For Mandela, education has always been the key to fulfilling dreams. He was one of the fortunate few from the area to be educated and the first in his family. Mandela attended a mission school in Qunu before later being sent away to boarding schools and university.
Even while incarcerated on Robben Island, he and the other political prisoners kept studying, referring to their jail as “the university.”
But the poor quality of public education remains one of the major weak spots in the new South Africa, under the ruling African National Congress, Mandela’s party. It is a complex problem involving lack of basic skills, shortages of resources, poor teacher training and other factors.
The quality of education even fares badly when compared with that of other poorer countries, according to South Africa's Human Sciences Research Council. The pass rate for crucial exams in the final year of high school, which allow students to attend university, has been falling over the past decade. Among students that do make it to university, the dropout rate is as high as 40 percent in the first year, many due to financial difficulties, and most of those students are black South Africans.
Ngxekana has had help along the way. His parents have encouraged him to attend a better school at the edge of Mthatha, the nearest big town. He is aware that he is more fortunate than many other young people his age, and that has fueled his future ambitions.
“I am going to study law,” he said. "We need to take the law to the people. There’s a gap with many people who are not aware of their rights.”
Mandela himself was a lawyer, and as a young man he ran a law firm in Johannesburg with anti-apartheid leader Oliver Tambo. “There is a bit of inspiration from Nelson Mandela,” Ngxekana admitted. But he is also inspired by the South African constitution, written in the early 1990s — “one of the best constitutions in the world,” he said — and by the dream of ending the continuing inequities in his country.
Today, Mandela’s charitable foundation supports several education programs, including the Nelson Mandela Institute for Education and Rural Development, based at the University of Fort Hare — which Mandela attended when it was the top school for black Africans.
The institute organizes a series of leadership programs, including a recent weekend camp held at the Nelson Mandela Museum in Qunu, attended by students from 21 local schools.
“We teach learners how writing is important, how reading is important,” said Xolela Kenene, a literature assistant at the camp. “In rural areas, there are no libraries. We are trying to make these learners love reading and writing.”
Yamkela Loliwe, 14, and Akhona Dlotshe, 15, are eighth grade students from Mqanduli, a nearby village, who were selected to take part in the camp because they are “active, engaged learners,” as Kenene explained.
At the camp they studied poetry for the first time, learning about rhyming schemes and alliteration, and were working on their own books of poetry, a chance to express their feelings about growing up in the Eastern Cape.
“I’m writing about my life and future, and about nature,” said Akhona. “I am feeling good because I’m getting more knowledge.”
Yamkela was working on a two-part poem about AIDS, in English and the Xhosa language.
Upon returning to their village school after the weekend, both girls planned to share with classmates what they had learned. “We will tell them everything that we did here,” Yamkela said. “It’s building our own future.”
A bright and confident young woman, Yamkela said she felt awed by the chance to take part in a workshop in the place where Mandela grew up. She said why Mandela inspires her to keep learning: “He fought for us.”