As the world mourns the passing of South African leader Nelson Mandela, a rare and towering icon of freedom, tolerance and justice, the focus naturally turns to the Nobel laureate’s lifetime of work to end the oppression of apartheid and bring true democracy to his native country, an effort that inspired and affected the entire world.
Countless tributes to the 95-year-old Mandela have been published in the hours since his death. They highlight the life of a man who affected real, global change in values, morality, politics and government; a man who now, as President Barack Obama said yesterday “belongs to the ages.”
It’s important then to note that his impact transcended constitutional matters to touch even our narrow and often arcane world of technology. For all the memorials that will ever be built to the man, few are as telling of his vision as a gleaming new building rising above the dusty rolling hills of Mvezo, a small village on the Mbashe River eastern South Africa.
This building in the former president’s hometown will be known as the Mandela School of Science and Technology when it opens its doors next month. The first high school ever built in underdeveloped Mvezo, it is no accident that its focus will be on training the next generation of South African technologists, engineers and scientists.
Lesser known in Mandela’s fight for freedom and democracy in South Africa was his strong belief in the need to develop the country’s scientific and technological capacity. In the segregated South Africa of the past, technical training was largely unavailable to non-whites. Mandela, who once called education “the most powerful weapon with which you can change the world,” knew the dearth of technology and engineering talent was a major limiting factor to South Africa’s development.
Over the course of his presidency and beyond, Mandela helped establish several university-level African Institutes of Science and Technology both inside and outside of South Africa. That legacy now lives on in the new technology high school that bears his name and serves students in the town where he was born.
The idea for the school began in 2010 as a conversation between Mandela and Siemens AG President and CEO Peter Loescher. Mandela was passionate about creating opportunities for technology-minded students in Mvezo, where the choices were largely limited to dropping out or leaving home.
Loescher accepted the challenge and so began Siemens’ largest social investment to date. Construction of the two-story, 25-classroom school with the motto “Education is Freedom” will welcome some 700 new students when it opens in January. Students in grades 8 through 12 will be selected from two dozen feeder schools in the area to get highly-focused training in their choice of engineering, science, technology or agriculture. Siemens will continue to fund the school’s operational and maintenance costs for three years.
Nkosi Zwelivelile Mandela, head of the Mvezo Traditional Council and a grandson of the late former president called the Mandela School of Science and Technology “easily the most significant investment in education that this area has ever seen.”
“This is the type of initiative which can change the lives of this community forever,” the younger Mandela said.
Indeed, Nelson Mandela’s zeal for technology and education wasn’t lost on industry leaders, who reacted like many others to news of Mandela’s death.
“Mr. Mandela was a courageous leader who had the vision and strength of character to help create a brighter future for all citizens of the country he loved so much,” said Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers in the wake of Mandel’s passing yesterday. “In doing so he inspired the world.”
“Every time Melinda and I met Nelson Mandela, we left more inspired than ever. His grace and courage changed the world,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates posted on Twitter. “This is a sad day. From prisoner to president, Nelson Mandela was tireless in his pursuit of equality and justice for all people.”
South African-born technology visionary Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, summed it up simply: “Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. A man both good and great.”
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