Millions of children around the world are uniting today to sing happy birthday to Nelson Mandela, one of the world’s most iconic statesmen.
Mr Mandela, who is 93 today, led the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and the subsequent transition to multi-racial democracy. He became the country’s first black president in 1994 following the country’s first fully representative democratic elections.
For Link, the story of Nelson Mandela and the transition to democracy in South Africa is especially poignant, as it is closely tied to our own development as an organisation.
We began life in 1989 as Link Africa, a student-led charity based in Cambridge University that supported black education in South Africa under Apartheid rule. Under Apartheid, responsibility for education was divided between 19 separate departments across the country, defined by racial groups and homelands. The quality of education on offer to black people was significantly weaker than the education available for the white minority.
Link organised short-term teaching placements in rural black communities - many students then took on longer placements after graduating, allowing us to develop more comprehensive projects to improve the quality of education on offer.
Following the end of Apartheid in 1994, South Africa merged its 19 separate departments of education into a single department. Reforming the education system was a huge logistical challenge, but Link was well placed to support the process having gained experience running 17 different education projects across the country. So we started to focus on supporting central government with this crucially important but demanding process.
June 1995 was a crucial moment in the development of both South Africa and Link. The Rugby World Cup was held in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela’s dream of uniting his people through sport reached a remarkable conclusion as the hosts triumphed in the final against New Zealand. Few people will forget the images of Mr Mandela and South Africa captain François Pienaar embracing as the trophy was lifted, a moment captured in the 2009 film Invictus.
That same month, Link was officially registered with the UK Charity Commission under our current name, Link Community Development. With our experience growing, the immediate challenge was to reduce the chasm in quality between formerly white schools and formerly black schools in South Africa.
Link switched from a focus on individual projects to a “whole district approach”, working with local district staff and communities to understand the problems facing education and ensure that all schools in the district began to take steps forward. We focused our efforts on the township of Soshanguve, 60km north of Pretoria. Between 1997 and 2003, the difference in completion rates between formerly black and formerly white schools fell from 45% to 8%, with no drop in standards in the formerly white schools.
Nelson Mandela’s presidency finished in 1999, but his legacy of change has lived on ever since. Our current projects across sub-Saharan Africa – such as our School Performance Review - still bear the hallmarks of the approach we adopted in Soshanguve. We work closely with both government and district staff to ensure that the work we do and the lessons we learn are as wide-reaching as possible.
So here at Link we are joining the millions of others pausing today to celebrate the extraordinary contribution of Nelson Mandela. He is known for his incredible energy and charisma, his disarming smile and his utter dedication to the cause he believed in. For Link, too, he shares the tenacity and vision of equality that has characterised our own approach to education in South Africa.
Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela - Nobel Peace Prize Winner, iconic figure and inspirational leader.