World

A REFLECTION

Ubuntu: Getting to know ourselves through others in the shadow of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Ubuntu: Getting to know ourselves through others in the shadow of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
Nelson Mandela School, Berlin, 16 June 2015. Photo: Igenes Werk/Wikimedia/Creative Commons

A visit to the Nelson Mandela International School in Berlin on its annual Ubuntu Day celebration on 21 May 2019 will stay with me for a long time.

It was a humbling and uplifting experience to see the Mandela values of inclusivity, diversity and community service being lived and shared on a daily basis by some 1,500 students from more than 60 countries including some students and teachers from South Africa.

It was a kaleidoscope of colour and activity with a rich tapestry of passion and culture that gives the school the feel of a youthful United Nations.

The bilingual — German and English — state school was founded in 2000 to attract more nationalities to Berlin in line with the German capital’s policy of openness and cultural inclusion.

A facade with larger-than-life images of Mandela’s smiling face spread across the top leads one into a courtyard where on a battery of sewing machines students were creating new patchwork clothes from their own discarded clothes.

Classes were suspended as the school’s focus turned to its core mission of fostering intercultural communication, diversity, global sustainability and community service.

In the assembly hall, the school was listening to a speech by South African ambassador Stone Sizane speaking about the importance of education in the UN’s sustainable development goals, followed by an interaction with the students.

Invited experts were holding seminars on climate change and other topics of universal relevance.

I had been invited, with Berlin-based journalist and filmmaker Anli Serfontein, to share anecdotes of my personal experience of interacting with Mandela and observations about his impact on others.

Serfontein screened a multimedia presentation of Mandela’s life which included moving interviews with Zindzi Mandela, now South Africa’s ambassador to Denmark, and a 1985 interview with the late Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela speaking to the late filmmaker and activist Hennie Serfontein about the pain of separation from her husband and her harrowing ordeal in detention.

The film was accompanied by the hypnotic rhythm and lyrics of Johnny Clegg’s Asimbonanga.

I get goose-bumps every time I hear that song,” said Given Raphole, who grew up in Soweto and has spent the past five years teaching physics at the school.

It is a dream come true for me,” he said, despite the distance from home. Raphole later joined Anli Serfontein and me on a panel where he spoke about the qualities which made Mandela great.

The high school students listened with rapt attention to the film and presentation and then participated with their own inputs and observations in a conversation about Mandela’s life and the timeless relevance of his values for a troubled world.

The students contributed their views about Mandela’s legacy.

They were particularly struck by Mandela’s total and lifelong focus on achieving the goal of defeating apartheid and liberating South Africans from its oppressive yoke.

If Mandela could achieve the seemingly impossible then I am inspired to emulate his example and leave the world a better place,” said a student.

The students were equally impressed with the power and simplicity of Mandela’s focus on our common humanity and his ability to inspire and empower others to follow his example.

His actions matched his words and he showed us what integrity is,” said another student.

Mandela’s absence of fear empowered him,” said a student. “He was able to achieve what he did because he didn’t care what other people thought.”

The dialogue with the students did not seem like a question-and-answer session. It was an inclusive exploration of the way Mandela lived his life and achieved what he did.

The principal of the school Gerald Miebs said he was surprised and encouraged by the way the students participated.

They were really engaged,” he said.

We were learning from one another in the long shadow cast by Mandela’s life.

I said earlier that Mandela did not need to talk much about ubuntu because he lived it in his everyday life both during his 27 years in jail and after he was released.

He did so by acknowledging the humanity and intrinsic worth of every person he came into contact with.

There was a wide divergence among the students about their knowledge of Mandela’s life, but they all understood the power and value if his steadfastness and humanity, which in turn gave rise to his magnanimity, forgiveness and belief in the ability of even the lowliest among us to triumph over adversity.

Nihal Adler, a teacher at the school who co-organised the Mandela Memories session, said her take-away was that both teachers and pupils needed to focus more on the quality of their interaction with one another.

I think we could all just take a little more time to interact with each other and acknowledge our humanity in the true spirit of ubuntu,” she said. DM

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