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Children walk past a convoy of military vehicles in Qunu, South Africa, Dec. 12, 2013. (ADREES LATIF/REUTERS)
Children walk past a convoy of military vehicles in Qunu, South Africa, Dec. 12, 2013. (ADREES LATIF/REUTERS)

Craig Kielburger

Qunu mourns Mandela and the barriers to education Add to ...

The children of Qunu stood for hours on the side of a brand new stretch of highway as they waited for the hearse carrying Nelson Mandela to come into view. Dozens of armed tanks passed by first, some mounted with anti-aircraft missiles. Hundreds of military police and soldiers lined the highway. Overhead, a South African military helicopter hovered, doors open, watching from above.

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When the hearse passed by, the children cheered the return of the most famous alumnus of the Eastern Cape, only to have it quickly disappear from sight as it travelled towards a white dome built to surround Mandela’s homestead and grave.

One of those young people lining the highway was Liyabon Mandela, 17, related to Mandela through her grandfather. Liyabon was raised on stories about Mandela’s youth. “He used a bow and arrow to hunt birds here,” she said, waving at the field.

She also was taught the stories of Mandela, the top student who became a lawyer, then eventually—after 27 years of imprisonment—the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

To Liyabon and her friends, education is everything. She, too, wants to become a lawyer so she can defend women who have been sexually assaulted in a country that has one of the highest incidents of rape in the world. Her friend, Zizo, 15, wants to be a community activist. Nonzuzo, 16, a social worker. They all hope to follow Mandela’s social justice legacy.

Yet, despite the massive show of military wealth and power that rumbled down highway N2 this Saturday afternoon, the nearby schools are short of funds. Many are derelict and lacking crucial resources. Many of the teachers, students and aid groups I spoke with here said the South African government is failing the children.

“We have no running water, no toilets. The students go to the bathroom in the fields,” said Benedicta Zenzile, who teaches at the nearby Ndibela Junior Secondary School. “It’s nothing to be proud of. We don’t have sports grounds even though our students are very good at sports.”

She used to teach English and geography. Now she teaches technology, although they have no computers.

She said the fence around the school is broken, and expects the school officials will have to repair damage caused by vandalism during the Christmas break. She blames the government for failing to properly fund the schools.

She points out that although there aren’t funds available for a new fence, there is money to build the massive bubble-like enclosure around Mandela’s homestead to protect his family and world leaders gathering for Sunday’s funeral.

At another area school, students must collect a bottle of water each morning from a nearby river. Later, they add it to a communal pot used to make soup for lunch for their classmates, said Catherine Borien, one of the founders of the Borien Educational Foundation of South Africa.

“These schools have a very poor learning environment,” her husband and co-founder, Keith, told me. “The sanitation is awful. They go out in the field for a toilet.” He said many of the teachers have poor education and substandard resources.

The Borien Educational Foundation supports the “ten Madiba schools” (Madiba is Mandela’s clan name) in the region where Mandela and his family have gone to school over the generations. They work in partnership with a South African telecommunications company.

“These are ten very special schools, and we’re working to make them better,” said Keith.

Not all schools in the region are ramshackle. According to an article posted on the South African government’s website a week ago, no doubt in anticipation of journalists descending on the Qunu community, the school Nelson Mandela attended when he was seven has been upgraded after a visit in 1996, as have several other schools, after Mandela used his influence to attract donors.

Indeed. The students I met were filled with ambition. And not just the girls. The boys I met want to be teachers, engineers, soldiers and doctors.

They are doing their part to honour Mandela’s legacy, but South Africa is failing them. These potential future leaders are not being set up for success.

Liyabon lost both of her parents last year. She worries how she will pay for university, and is studying hard to win a bursary. Her overall average is around 80 percent.

“In the memory of Mandela and of my parents, I want to make them proud.” She was saddened that she wasn’t invited to the funeral, but after the world leaves, and the enclosure comes down, she plans to visit Madiba’s grave with her friends to pay respects.

If the community and the government really wanted to honour him, they should be investing in schools and children. It is a shame that schools where his descendants and others in his community live are so poorly funded that they can’t support educational ambitions.

Craig Kielburger is an international activist and co-founder of Free The Children

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