Picture: Supplied
The full text of Graca Machel's keynote speech delivered at the Mandela Rhodes Foundation's “100 for the 100th” event held earlier this week.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, as we all know there are countless events taking place across the world in honour and celebration of the centenary of the birth of Africa’s great son, Nelson Mandela. Every aspect of Madiba’s life and passions will be recalled.

At this wonderful occasion organised by the Mandela Rhodes Foundation tonight, I think it is appropriate for me to focus on one of the most powerful of his passions – education.

After all, the MRF was brought into being 15 years ago precisely to give practical expression to his wish to use his legacy to make a long-term difference in the areas of higher education and leadership development.

Along with its sister organisations the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, the Mandela Institute for Development Studies, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Madiba gave the MRF its mandate to ‘build exceptional leadership in Africa’, and his Trustees approved the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships programme as the primary vehicle for achieving this.

As you have heard, it has since succeeded beyond all of our highest hopes, changing the lives of hundreds of young Africans with leadership potential, and with the promise of many, many more to come.

Madiba used to love meeting his young Scholars. You can see his happiness in the picture on the screen tonight – which was taken at UCT with the very first cohort – who were eight in total. As you have seen this evening, those annual numbers have grown somewhat!

Madiba’s famous statement is very well known: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’



However, I want to add a little more flavour to message. Madiba had a technique when he was meeting the Scholars. First, he would use his wonderful sense of humour to make them laugh and put them at ease – and then he would deliver his serious message to capture their attention and inspire them into action.

As most people in the broad MRF ‘family’ know, Shaun Johnson, founding Executive Director of MRF, has been hard at work researching from primary sources a history of the MRF’s origins and its early days. To illustrate the point about Madiba’s technique with the Scholars, here are some touching examples of those exchanges from our archives.

On being introduced to South African Scholar Elias Phaahla, Madiba as MRF Patron, put him at his ease by inviting him to ask a question. Elias inquired: ‘How is old age treating you?’ Madiba paused and responded: ‘No, no...  Just ask me, how am I treating old age!?’ The gathering erupted in laughter. He then went on to help the Scholars see the importance of education.

Madiba said to the Scholar Obedient Tshabalala: ‘Nobody who has no education can be a leader anywhere in the world.  And so, you must stress that education now is the qualification for leadership.’

To Ugandan Scholar Cynthia Ayeza Mutabaazi, he asked: ‘Have you met President Museveni?’ Cynthia nervously replied: ‘No, I haven’t’. Madiba said: ‘I see. You must phone him when you pass.’ A visibly relieved Cynthia said: ‘I’ll do that.’

To Kim Smith of the University of the Western Cape, he again light-heartedly yet seriously emphasized that with a proper education, a person could achieve anything, he remarked: ‘It was only when I was in jail that I made progress in my studies. Fortunately, you don’t have to go through that!’

Suntosh Pillay from University of KwaZulu Natal asked of Madiba: ‘What is your dream for this country?’

Madiba looked very reflective and paused for a while before answering. And then he said, pointing to all the Scholars gathered in the NMF’s auditorium: ‘My dream? My dream has started already – here you are.’ That was a deeply moving moment for all of those young Africans in the room.

I share these exchanges with you, so you can see first-hand the deep love Madiba had for young people, and how gentle yet insistent he was about the importance of education.

Also unearthed in the research process was a television interview that Madiba gave in London in 2005. He was asked: ‘Talking about the future and the legacy that you wish to leave.  How do see the work of your Foundations panning out over the next 10 years?’

Madiba replied: ‘Well, up to now the Foundations have done very well. [They] have been supported by a wide variety of influential people. And therefore, we have the hope that the work … is going to continue for many years to come.’

The closing question of the interview was: ‘So what would you like your legacy to be?’

Madiba answered: ‘I would like to leave that to other people, not to me. It will be arrogant and selfish for me to say this is what I want of my legacy. Those people around me who have worked with me are the best people to say “this is the legacy of this old man” and I’ll be happy with that.’

Indeed, witnessing what we have seen here this evening, I do hope he would be happy with these young Mandela Rhodes Scholars and one shining part of his legacy here tonight.

I thank you.