Find Your Own Mandela

mandela-apOn December 5, after months of struggling with health, Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid revolutionary who became the first black president of South Africa in 1994, passed away at the age of 95. The world mourned and honored the passing of a hero, and the flag on the Circle, along with others around the nation, was lowered to half-staff. Headmaster Temba Maqubela, who was an anti-apartheid activist himself, still shares the same goals as those of Mandela. In fact, he developed a special bond with him at a very young age.

The story traces back to apartheid South Africa. As a child, Mr. Maqubela lived in a village near that of Mandela’s, and their families were close. Mr. Maqubela said that from the moment he started understanding anything, Nelson Mandela’s voice permeated his home because he had just been arrested and put on trial with Mr. Maqubela’s uncle and grandfather. In fact, his grandfather had taught Mandela social anthropology in college and they both belonged to the African National Congress, which resisted apartheid.

Similarly, Mr. Maqubela’s grandmother visited Mandela when he was in prison and witnessed  his sufferings including mistreatment and tuberculosis. After her visit, she began to write letters to Mandela, to which he responded, even though  many ended up not reaching Mandela. She put the few that did into a book, which she donated to the archives. One of these letters was read by Mrs. Maqubela in Chapel the day after he died.

After his grandmother’s visit with Mandela, Mr. Maqubela thought that she would return with a message to fight. Instead, she told him that Mandela was calling for reconciliation and shaking hands with former enemies. She was convinced that Mandela had not changed even under such treatment in prison, and that he still abided by the central principle of ANC, peace.

In fact, as a young activist himself, Mr. Maqubela also did not advocate physical “fighting.” Rather, he says that he was never angrier than he was determined. He simply wanted to do his best to change the situation. He said that anger was not an effective solution. One had to suppress one’s anger while fighting for justice.

Before Mr. Maqubela was arrested, the organization’s informants told him to not be surprised if he were to be arrested. However, he did not expect to be arrested in his mother’s class, which made him feel terrible.

Mr. Maqubela had only met Mandela briefly at a funeral, but he said that he knows so much about Mandela that there was no need to meet with him. Mr. Maqubela would rather be with students, whom he loves, rather than “fanfare.” Indeed, he says that one strong connection and similarity between him and Mandela is that they are both committed to education, and it is this commitment that makes Mr. Maqubela different from his fellow activists.

“Mandela,” he said, “was first and foremost committed to education.”  To Mr. Maqubela, education is a way to “liberate the mind.” When asked about what Mandela would have said if he had visited Groton, Mr. Maqubela responded that Mandela would urge students “to strive to be the best they are and can be in education.”

“The world needs more educated people,” said Mr. Maqubela, “because the world is becoming more sophisticated.” Indeed, for Mr. Maqubela, knowledge is important and powerful because it can relieve people from poverty, disease, and injustice.

Mr. Maqubela relates back to his childhood in his village where education was a community effort. People actively read books, striving to be their best. Mr. Maqubela himself was a diligent student. After fourth grade, he had to wake up very early in the morning and walk seven miles, even when raining, just to get to school. He said that if he was late, the teacher would cane him.

Because there were no schools for black people in white towns, Mr. Maqubela had to complete this daily journey, and it was obstacles  like these that gradually shaped his thinking. He described an unforgettable moment when he could not use the restroom in the building where his father worked because it was for white people only. He was in town but could not walk on the street, as such behavior would be considered “loitering” and could result in arrest. As a result, he had to drive to a poorly maintained- non-white restroom just to meet his simplest needs. Similarly, when he went to a park, he could not sit on the benches as they were for white people only. Such events left deep impressions on him as he realized that “this [was] not fair.”

Segregation under the apartheid was described by Mr. Maqubela as an “extreme form of bullying” that “dehumanizes you at a very young age.” It is hard for many students nowadays to imagine what it had been like, but when Mr. Maqubela was a student, every young black adult was an activist.

When asked about whether he would like to have been Mandela, Mr. Maqubela said no, stating that Mandela is “too important” and that he can only learn from him. As a result, he has been telling students to “find their own Mandela” and to strive for similar goals.

“[Mandela’s] work is unfinished business,” says Mr. Maqubela. “It is left to us to complete it.”

“The only thing that drives me is that I don’t want exclusion anywhere,” says Mr. Maqubela. “It is all about inclusion.” Inclusion has become Groton’s first and most important goal since Mr. Maqubela took office in July.

When asked about whether he has found his Mandela yet, Mr. Maqubela said that even after taking his last breath on earth, he will still not be able to completely find his Mandela. Indeed, he argues that it would be a lie if he said he did find him because finding Mandela is a “perfection,” or an “ideal” that cannot be truly achieved. Even Mr. Maqubela excludes people sometimes. He is, after all, human. However, he believes that if everyone works together towards this ideal, then people may become closer.

When Mr. Maqubela first heard that Mandela had become very ill over the summer, he, instead of worrying, told people to find their Mandela. He stresses that Mandela has shown people that every single breath counts because he persisted when everybody “waited” for him to die. Mandela took his last breath unaided.

Originally, Mr. Maqubela was planning to visit South Africa briefly, but decided against it, taking into account the fact that it would be  a long trip that would take him away from Groton.

“I think Mandela would be impressed with our school,” said Mr. Maqubela.

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