South Africa 1993: A moment with Mandela

Pancho Cajas (Ecuador)

Here I am, by myself, in Hamburg, watching everything available about Mandela on TV, and mourning. This man touched and inspired me and millions around the world. He seemed immortal but is now dead. I saw him in South Africa in 1993, twenty years ago. He was about to become President and he was preparing himself for government.

I came to South Africa for the first time in November 1993. Mandela had been liberated in 1990, after 27 years in prison. His liberation was celebrated worldwide, but especially in his own country. In February 1994, Mandela became the first black President in South Africa.

I was working at UNICEF HQ in New York as a Senior Education Adviser when I received an invitation from the Centre for Education Policy Development (CEPD), a technical NGO linked to the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela's political party. CEPD had been created that same year, "during the dying days of apartheid, in order to develop alternative education and training policies that would serve a future democratic South Africa", aimed at promoting non-racism, equity, democracy, quality education and lifelong learning. The effort culminated in ANC’s Policy Framework for Education and Training. Over 300 researchers, academics and practitioners contributed to the document.

CEPD invited me to contribute to the adult basic education component of the government plan that was being prepared. They also invited me to be a keynote speaker at the National Adult Basic Education Conference "Putting Adult Basic Education in the National Agenda" held in Johannesburg on 12-14 November 1993. They had chosen the title of my conference: "Adult education and the building of democratic societies".

Of course, I was thrilled to come to South Africa at such a wonderful moment and for such a wonderful task. This was a country full of joy and hope, getting prepared to vote, to govern, and to start burying apartheid. Wherever I went, I met wonderful, talented and committed people, all colors, all ages. I have been in South Africa several times after that, but that first time, in 1993, was an exceptional moment.

Many people came to the conference. The room was full, noisy, brilliant. South Africans were eager to listen, to learn, to imagine what the new education in South Africa could look like.

I spoke about Paulo Freire; they asked me to. Freire had been banned in South Africa during the apartheid years. Illegal copies of his writings - especially The Pedagogy of the Oppressed - had circulated underground, and had inspired university groups to undertake some radical literacy efforts. In fact, many were surprised to know that Freire was alive and active. Apartheid had not only banned his writings, but had managed to ban the man himself.

Visiting Soweto at that time was quite an experience. I was impressed with everything I saw and heard. I have no pictures but the memory has retained people, places and conversations in a very vivid way.

Mandela appeared all of a sudden in one of those visits. I saw him at a distance. As usual, he was surrounded by many people, and smiling all the time. Feeling the love and admiration South Africans had for him was an incredible experience. Even if we didn't meet or even get close, I have kept that moment as a very precious moment in my life.

Hamburg, 5 December 2013

Also in this blog
Una sentadita con Nelson Mandela
A mi amigo Paulo Freire | To my friend Paulo Freire

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