JOHANNESBURG: Breathlessly, the 10-year-olds at Rosebank Primary School in Johannesburg clamor to explain all about Nelson Mandela’s life.
For them, Mandela is the hero they love but never knew —as he is for the kids who this week have delivered cards, flowers and get-well messages to his Johannesburg home a short distance away as the 94-year-old icon of the struggle against apartheid fights a recurrent lung infection in hospital.
Madiba—as he is affectionately known in South Africa— retreated from public office in the decade before these children were born.
But they quickly go deep into details of his life, not forgetting to translate Mandela’s Xhosa name, Rolihlahla—which colloquially means “troublemaker”.
Even if he came from a poor family, they are proud that Mandela caused enough trouble to end white-minority rule and became the father of the “Rainbow Nation”.
He was so “poor that his father cut his own trousers so he can wear it on his first day to school,” said Junior Luthuli, 10, during break time.
“And the (pair of) trousers was big, and he didn’t have a belt, so his father used a string to tie it,” interjected classmate Sibusiso Ncube, also 10.
South African children start to learn about “Tata”, or father Mandela, as early as pre-school.
By primary school Mandela is firmly on the syllabus along with lessons about Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi, both offered as examples of good leadership.
Images of Mandela feature prominently in social science and history textbooks.
South African children are supposed to be taught about the American political system when the subject of democracy is first introduced in primary schools, but teachers find that irrelevant.
“These children need to know about their own history first, about Mandela, about (his apartheid predecessor and negotiating counterpart FW) De Klerk, before we start teaching them about other countries,” said history teacher Mia Flourentzou.
Meanwhile the pupils eagerly await their turn to speak about Mandela.
“I have heard he has problems with his lungs. I feel sad because I don’t want him to go away. He has done a lot for this country and he deserves the best,” said Refiloo Mtheya.
In the course of a few minutes she retells Mandela’s life story from the day he was born to him voting in the 1994 elections that ushered him in as South Africa’s first black president.
“Mandela is important because he stopped apartheid. If he had not done that I probably would not have been in this school,” said Luthuli, who commutes from the predominantly black Soweto township to his school in an upmarket suburb of Johannesburg.
“I just want to be like him, I don’t want to be corrupt like some people.”
The children may not understand what it is like to be in a jail, but they certainly know it was tough for Mandela to spend 27 years in apartheid prisons.
“South Africans are trying to push Mandela to go up to 100 years because he spent a lot of his life on Robben Island,” said Masiko Dlamini, daughter of an expatriate Swazi lawyer.
“Mandela has made this a beautiful country. There is no more white rule because of him. If it wasn’t because of him, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have seen South Africa because I am from Swaziland,” said Dlamini.
Ncube, who recounted the story of Mandela’s trousers, says the former president is his role model.
“He is very brave, he fought for freedom and he wasn’t scared of anything, he fought against HIV/AIDS.
“And I am scared that if he dies maybe apartheid will come back.”
Teacher Geraldine Nadas says the children “understand the role that Mandela played for us to be where we are. It’s a subject that excites them.”
In their last exam, the pupils were shown the iconic picture of Mandela walking from prison and were asked to write what they think was going through his mind.
Answers included “Freedom at last; Viva! Viva!” and “Democracy for our country”. AFP