Historic Moments are Teachable Moments: Analyze the Mandela Legacy

The world is watching and waiting for Nelson Mandela to pass. But why? Can’t we respect how South Africans and the Mandela family deal with death? Apparently not. According to today’s Chicago Tribune, foreign journalists are breaching family boundaries. As Mandela’s daughter reported, “it’s truly like vultures waiting when the lion has devoured the buffalo, waiting there for the last carcass.” Chicago Tribune, 6/28/2013, p. 20.

Stop. Drop your cameras and take time to study Mandela the man, Mandela, the leader and Mandela the humanitarian. His life has great depth; it’s filled with experiences that will captivate children and adults. Gifted expert Joyce vanTassel-Baska urges teachers to make study of the eminent part of the curriculum. This type of study broadens our cultural and academic lens and gives us the opportunity to connect with some of these leader’s traits, experiences, and complex ideologies.

There’s an old African saying that “travel makes one see.” My students and I “travelled” to South Africa many times to compare the apartheid system to segregation. They studied the grim practices of Jim Crow along side the evils of apartheid. I told them of my visit to the Mandela home in Soweto, where bullet holes lined the door to the home and the pelt of a jackal (Mandela wore this as a coat to his treason trial) served as a bedspread. We compared the philosophies of Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. As we studied these leaders and African American literature, we came back to complex, universal themes: freedom, identity, conflict, choice, comparative systems, forgiveness and reconciliation, and democracy.

A second grade student of mine elected to research Mandela. His focus: artifacts in Mandela’s life. In particular, he studied the identity cards that Mandela and other blacks in South Africa were forced to carry. This second grader drew the “native passes or pass booklet (as they were called) and explained the distinct features of each to his second grade peers. The pass booklet contained the individual’s name, addresses, tribal chief, fingerprints, tax information, and employment documents. Failure to show the passes (when asked by a white policeman, civil servant or employer) could result in fines or jail time. We were all wowed by the report. That a seven year old was reporting on Nelson Mandela drew the attention of staff at the McNeil Lehrer news hour. Producers came to school, filmed him giving his report, and included part of his report on a program on gifted education.

Mandala, originally dubbed Rolihalaha by his family or “troublemaker,” grew to be a great leader. Gardening was one of his favorite hobbies while in prison on Robben Island. Much later, Mandela likened gardening to leadership. “I saw the garden as a metaphor… A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plant seeds and then watches, cultivates and harvests the result. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved and eliminate what cannot succeed.”*

On a macro level, Mandela’s garden metaphor spells out a daunting task for our leaders. On a micro level, it plants the seeds for critical thinking, research, and dialogue with our children.

Big ideas are the stuff great leaders are made of.

Good night, President Mandela. You were a mighty fine leader. Thank you for the inspiration that blooms wildly in your garden, ready for the next generation of leaders.

*Mandela, Nelson, (1994). Long Walk to Freedom, p. 490, NY, NY: Little, Brown, and Company.


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  • Couldn't agree more. Please forgive the shameless promotion but I did a write-up on a radio program about Mandela a couple weeks ago with some interviews not to be missed. http://www.chicagonow.com/third-coast-third-world/2013/06/nelson-mandela-as-youve-never-heard-him/

  • Hi Redwhitenblack, just read your post. Great! Now I need to listen to the audio. What a find. Kudos to you!

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