"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
Nelson Mandela spoke these words at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 2003. The speech came nine years after the recently elected president declared the state of education in his country a national crisis.
The country Mandela’s administration inherited in 1994 had an immense disparity in services and wealth between blacks and whites. South Africa was mired in poverty and violence, and a third of the population was illiterate. Meanwhile, 2 million children weren’t in school.
“Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
Mandela recognized the importance of education as the root of political and institutional mobility. While he’ll be remembered for his prolonged fight against inequality and institutional racism in South Africa, leading the government that ultimately dismantled apartheid, Mandela also left behind a legacy on education.
It took Mandela some 45 years after he began law school in 1943 to earn his own bachelor’s degree. He failed in two previous attempts — having devoted most of his time to politics — and never considering himself a good student.
Arrested for spearheading the South African Communist Party’s sabotage campaign against the apartheid government, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison at age 44. However, in prison he was able to study during nights, working on his bachelor of laws degree while also studying Islam and Afrikaans. Mandela hoped that through learning Afrikaans, he could build a mutual respect with his guards and convert them to his cause.
“Do not judge me by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."
During an 18-year stint at Robben Island prison, Mandela started the "University of Robben Island.” Prisoners debated on a variety of topics, from politics to homosexuality, and lectured one another on their subjects of expertise. When Mandela was finally released from Victor Verster Prison in 1990, he emerged a philosopher, mediator and mature leader, and with the completion of the bachelor of laws degree.
By the end of its tenure, Mandela’s regime had brought 1.5 million children into the education system. In 2007, Mandela founded the Institute for Education and Rural Development (NMI), which works along with teachers and community leaders to build sustainable solutions for public education serving rural children.
Today, South Africa remains widespread with poverty and violence. No one in history has made the extraordinary positive strides of Mandela; however, the nation’s schools are still ranked near the bottom internationally. Mandela’s crusade in education is still unfinished. His legacy now belongs to all of us to carry forward.
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— Rae Largura is president of Leading Edge Tutors. The opinions expressed are her own.