South African teens — those 'born free' — talk about Mandela

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". There are any number of places we could take you to start our show today. Nelson Mandela's death and the reaction to it are news across the globe. But let's start right here in Boston. The year was 1990 - the same year Mandela was released from prison. He came to Boston and during that visit he stopped at a local high school to give a brief speech. The topic was one Mandela was passionate about - education.

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Nelson Mandela: We are deeply concerned, both in our country and here, of the very large number of dropouts by school children. This is a very disturbing situation because the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow.
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Werman: "Above all," he told the assembled students, "we love you." Let's now turn to The World's Anders Kelto in South Africa. And all this academic year, Anders, you've been profiling students at a place called COSAT, it's a high school in Cape Town, and you went to speak with a couple of students this morning to find out how they react to Mandela's passing. What has been the reaction from these "born frees", this generation that did not grow up with apartheid?

Anders Kelto: Well, like just about everyone else here, they are pretty shocked and pretty saddened. One of the students told me that he got text messages from just about everyone he knew because all his friends knew that Nelson Mandela was his personal hero, and another girl I spoke to said she just suddenly felt like without Nelson Mandela here, South Africa suddenly didn't have a real leader anymore.

Werman: And we heard that great bit of Mandela's speech here in Boston about the importance of staying in school and not dropping out. Is that a message that COSAT students have received? I mean do they even think that part of the reason they are in that school is because of Mandela?

Kelto: Absolutely. I spoke with one student named Bayanda who has read a lot about Mandela. He's the one that said Mandela was his personal hero, and he actually works with an organization now that's trying to improve schools and he talked about how knowing about Mandela inspires him.

Bayanda: You know, it's inspiring for me as a young person to know that history is driving me to say I must take my education seriously, I must take what I have seriously in order for me to make the change that these people fought for.

Werman: And, Anders, how is that inspiration shared across South Africa do you think?

Kelto: Well, I wouldn't say it's an universal feeling. I mean this school is somewhat special. The kids on average are sort of a cut above the average South African student, and across the country there are a lot of students who do sort of take for granted the education that they have today, who don't know about the history of Mandela and the struggle to get equal education for students no matter what their race. So I would say it's sort of a mixed bag.

Werman: The legacy isn't just about inspiration though, it's also about practicality.

Kelto: Yeah, absolutely. I mean Mandela and others who fought with him for liberation did transform every aspect of life in South Africa including schools. I spoke with a student named Somila who told me this.

Somila: Today we have libraries, we have schools with good infrastructure because of him. He wanted everyone to be educated, just like him.

Kelto: I'll add to that that although there have improvements in infrastructure recently, progress on the rebuilding and the refurbishing of schools has been very limited and quite slow.

Werman: So COSAT is kinda a diamond in the rough then?

Kelto: It is. I mean across the country there are a lot of schools that are still literally built of mud, some that don't have toilets, and the government really has its work cut out for it to make up for the legacy of apartheid and a broken education system that basically taught blacks how to be housemaids and mineworkers.

Werman: Next year there's gonna be presidential elections in South Africa. I'm wondering without Mandela, what faith does this young generation have about leadership in their country?

Kelto: You know, there was a tremendous sense of optimism here in the years after Mandela was released from prison and South Africa held its first democratic elections, it seemed like the sky was the limit. And since then, a lot of that optimism has faded as people have sort of confronted the reality of how difficult change really is. But you still see that same glimmer of hope and optimism in kids, and this rising generation is getting educated, something that their parents weren't able to do and they do have faith that they as the rising generation born in a free South Africa really can transform this place.