"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."
-- Nelson Mandela
The United Nations declared July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day. This day marks not just the birthday of the man who inspired a nation to make fundamental changes in ethnic inclusion and acceptance, but also, at the request of Mandela himself, a day for good to be done. As we celebrate Mandela’s 92nd birthday, we join our South African neighbors who have committed to spend a minimum of 67 minutes, a minute for every year Mandela served in politics, to make a positive change in the world. Read a book to a child. Spend time with an elderly person or clean up a nearby park. No effort is too small, and the sum can be world-changing.
Chris Mothupi, Room to Read's Country Director in South Africa, grew up during South Africa's apartheid and remembers how “the man behind bars” changed his country and the world. Our thanks to Chris and Wilfredo Pascual, our Local Language Publishing Global Program Officer, for collaborating on this post.
Long before he understood there was something wrong with the way things were, Chris Mothupi heard stories about “the man behind bars.” Chris grew up in rural South Africa and understood very little about how people were treated differently. He had only brief contact with white people during those days, other than their monthly visits to check on the cattle.
His mother worked as a housekeeper in Johannesburg, and sometimes during holidays, Chris would be allowed to visit her. It was on one of those visits when he saw the big houses in the city for the first time. He was never allowed to go inside -- but he knew the people inside the house lived differently. He was also told to be quiet in front of them and to try not to speak.
Chris’ mother worked for several employers, some of whom treated her well. One of them, the son of the owner, even asked to see Chris’ report card and, upon learning that he was doing well in school, offered to pay Chris’ school fees.
It was the mid-seventies, and already the riots had started. Chris heard of the violent student protests against the teaching of Afrikaans instead of their mother tongue. Students were fleeing to rural areas, and suddenly Chris’ world was connected to national unrest. Less than a year later, his mother told him that the owner had ordered his son to stop paying for Chris’ school.
Determined to continue to study, Chris tried to help save money by working as a caddy in a golf club. One day, the police saw him counting his money and asked him where he got it. He explained that he worked hard, but they did not listen and took it away. To this day he can still remember the words of the policeman, "I can break you.” With an anger burning inside him, it suddenly became very clear to Chris why Mandela was behind bars.
Chris was a teacher in his mid-twenties when he heard that the government was considering releasing Mandela on the condition that he should denounce violence. Mandela said that he did not even have the means to talk to his people behind bars, and that if they were going to release him, it had to be without conditions. Apartheid was losing favor with some in government, and one official was quoted (and later admonished) as saying that someday South Africa might have a black president.
The first time he saw Mandela in person was at a large rally. Though he could only see him from afar, Chris remembers well what the man said. He wanted everybody to be equal -- black and white. He also said that children must go to school and learn. How can you have freedom if you do not have education, Mandela asked everybody.
A decade later, South Africa has come a long way, and yet there is still a lot of work to be done. For Chris, Mandela has done his part. He left lasting legacies to the people, and, for Chris, one of the most important is how the man who was imprisoned for 27 years taught them the value of “perseverance.”
“We now have to do our part,” Chris says.
Since 2006, Room to Read South Africa has established over 200 libraries and published more than 25 children’s books in several local languages. However, over 80% of South African children still do not have a library in their community. To learn more about Room to Read’s work in South Africa, click here.