Nelson Mandela is a truly great man, and much has been, and will be written, I am sure, in the coming weeks and months, about his many achievements in his home country of South Africa, and throughout Africa and the world. In and amongst all of these tributes, we should not forget his deep-rooted commitment to education, and to the education of girls. In a video message to the launch in Berlin in 2005 of the United Nations’ Schools for Africa campaign, he said: “My dream is for all children of Africa to go to school. We must be unrelenting in our efforts to educate our children. There can be no excuse for not creating an enabling environment where all children throughout Africa can reach their full potential”. In 2007, aged 88, he spoke at the opening of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, and said: “It is my hope that this school will become the dream of every South African girl and they will study hard and qualify for the school one day”.
There is much more work to be done in South Africa. In a recent UNICEF report, it was noted that while South Africa spends a bigger share of its gross domestic product on education than any other country in Africa, and primary schooling is compulsory for children aged 7 to 15, with strategies in place to encourage poor, orphaned, disabled and vulnerable children to school, “performance levels are lower than in many other countries in the region. High levels of school attendance, gender parity in both primary and secondary education and pro-poor school policies are achievements that contrast with the poor quality of education”.
Much of this, according to the report, is related to the social and infrastructure difficulties experienced by children: “Many children experience a broken journey through school, interrupted by irregular attendance, absent teachers, teenage pregnancy and school-related abuse and violence. Around 27 per cent of public schools do not have running water, 78 per cent are without libraries and 78 per cent do not have computers. There is limited provision for preschool and special education.”
Nelson Mandela has made an enormous difference and left a great legacy. But it is far from accomplished; in his memory and in his honour, others must now take up the baton.