I'd like to start this post not in Cape Town, but in Boston.

Nelson Mandela visited the city in 1990, the same year he was released from prison. And during that visit, he stopped at a local high school where he was scheduled to speak.  

Thousands of students, teachers and parents waited in a packed auditorium for Mandela, who was running very late, to arrive. When Mandela finally got to the school, his speech was brief, but memorable. To cheers, he spoke passionately about education, both in South Africa and in America:

"We are deeply concerned both in our country, and here, of the very large number of drop-outs by school children. This is a very disturbing situation, because the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow. We know that the reason for our children leaving school at the very elementary standards is because of poverty and frustration. But we'd like to advise you to try as as much as possible to remain in school.

"Above all," he told the assembled students, "we love you."

With the news of Mandela's passing, I wanted to pay a visit to COSAT, a high school in Cape Town that I've been profiling all this year. Many of the students there are from very poor families. I wanted to find out what this generation of students, the so-called "born frees" who have grown up without apartheid, thought about Mandela.

Not surprisingly, most of the students, like the rest of the nation, are shocked and saddened. One student named Bayanda told me that he had been receiving a constant stream of text messages from friends, because those friends knew that Mandela was his personal hero. 

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

Another student, named Somila, told me that, with Mandela gone, it really seemed like South Africa didn't have a leader. But she reminded me that Mandela's legacy for education in South Africa was more than just inspirational. It was also very real, very practical.

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

Of course, not every student in South Africa feels this way, and many schools still have a long way to go. But, at least at COSAT, you do get the sense that "born frees" remain optimistic, despite the many obstacles.

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