A Conversation with
Kweku
Mandela
E

ditor’s Note: Kweku Mandela is the grandson of Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa and anti-apartheid hero. This is part one of an interview conducted at the National Literacy Summit with Kevin Baird, chief academic officer for Achieve3000.

Mandela headshot

Kevin: If you don’t mind, let’s get personal. I think folks are really interested in your own personal story. What was it like to grow up with this famous heritage and famous last name and the expectations and the pressures?

Kweku: Two months after I was born, I was moved to the States at Amherst, Massachusetts, and my first understanding and concept of my grandfather was not positive. I remember the teacher saying in class that, “We have someone in class whose grandfather is very special. And, he is in prison right now for fighting for people’s rights.” I had no concept of what that meant, but I did know what prison meant. And for me, prison was a place that criminals went. And it was only when I got home and spoke to my mother and my father, and they explained, that I had a better concept. And it wasn’t until I was four and a half years old that I actually flew back to South Africa for the first time.

I don’t have major recollections of that time, but I do remember being at the airport in Johannesburg, and arriving, and the way they checked our passports. I think there were four or five layers of them checking your passport. I remember going to visit my grandmother for the first time. There were tanks on the road as we went there, and every 10 miles they would make you get out of the car and check your identification again.

I had this very distant relationship with South Africa for most of my young childhood, and it wasn’t until I was probably five years old that I got to meet my grandfather, who was at the time under house arrest at a place in Cape Town, where they would hold prisoners who are usually sick or suffering from some sort of element, and they would make them more comfortable. At the time, the government was negotiating with them to see if he could be released. They allowed him to have one visit from his entire family. So, we drove out to the tip of Cape Town, and we met him, and I do remember that first encounter with him. He was very warm, and he was very concerned about his grandkids and making sure that we didn’t realize this was a prison. We all gathered in the living room and watched, and he asked them if they could make us hot chocolate, and we had no real concept of what was going on. When we got there, there was a large media contingency. And so, something was a bit different.

I had this very distant relationship with South Africa for most of my young childhood and it wasn’t until I was probably five years old that I got to meet my grandfather…
Space view of world
I had this very distant relationship with South Africa for most of my young childhood and it wasn’t until I was probably five years old that I got to meet my grandfather…

Kevin: We have a lot of kids in Achieve3000 who are adjudicated kids. We work with the correctional systems in a number of states. If you think about that perspective, any thoughts or insights, because we think about the kids who might be sitting in our classroom that have parents in those kinds of situations, or grandparents or even kids who might have been in that kind of scenario. How do you help them find their confidence and their esteem? How did that work for you?

Kweku: I think I was always a relatively confident young kid, but a lot of that came from the fact that I was bigger than most kids. When I look back, I think the bigger thing, and the thing I would say to kids that grow up whose parents may be incarcerated, it’s so easy to forget those people. I didn’t really have a concept of who my grandfather was; he was a very foreign person to me. Once you go into jail, you really disappear from society. And I think they have a responsibility to remember their family members, maybe understand why they end up in those situations, and then gain confidence from that, because no two people are the same even though you may share blood. I love my grandfather and what he’s been able to do, but I don’t want to go into political life, though interesting, or anything related to that.

I’ve always been passionate about filmmaking and music, and I followed that. I think that’s the beauty of the world we live in. Often, we attach these titles and this reverence to people’s names. One of the things that I always was very proud about with my grandfather is it didn’t matter who you were. He would always go out of his way to greet you.

Kevin: We have a lot of kids in Achieve3000 who are adjudicated kids. We work with the correctional systems in a number of states. If you think about that perspective, any thoughts or insights, because we think about the kids who might be sitting in our classroom that have parents in those kinds of situations, or grandparents or even kids who might have been in that kind of scenario. How do you help them find their confidence and their esteem? How did that work for you?

Kweku: I think I was always a relatively confident young kid, but a lot of that came from the fact that I was bigger than most kids. When I look back, I think the bigger thing, and the thing I would say to kids that grow up whose parents may be incarcerated, it’s so easy to forget those people. I didn’t really have a concept of who my grandfather was; he was a very foreign person to me. Once you go into jail, you really disappear from society. And I think they have a responsibility to remember their family members, maybe understand why they end up in those situations, and then gain confidence from that, because no two people are the same even though you may share blood. I love my grandfather and what he’s been able to do, but I don’t want to go into political life, though interesting, or anything related to that.

I’ve always been passionate about filmmaking and music, and I followed that. I think that’s the beauty of the world we live in. Often, we attach these titles and this reverence to people’s names. One of the things that I always was very proud about with my grandfather is it didn’t matter who you were. He would always go out of his way to greet you.

One story that comes to mind was Bono had come over to his house to spend some time with him. I brought one of my friends with me. We had just finished playing a rugby game. And we’re all taking photos and everyone’s clamoring to get in the photo with Bono. He sees my friend and says, “Who is this person?” And my friend gets nervous. He’s like, “I’m Sean,” and my grandfather says, “Don’t you want to come and take a photo with us?” He comes over, and my granddad shakes his hand, and he tells them, “I’m not going to wash my hand, because I’ve just met a future leader.” It was that ability to disarm people, but also to never allow yourself to be trapped in a bubble; he fought very hard to do that, and I think it pays dividends. Because the one thing I think we learn when all the money’s gone and all the materials are gone, it’s the genuine love of people that’s important.

Kevin: That’s powerful, and I was thinking about something you referenced in the first session. You talked about a set of expectations, and you didn’t always live up to it, as none of us do. When we think about our kids, it can be so easy to not recognize when we might be giving off signals that they’re letting us down, giving them that negative message. I’m wondering, in your life, as you think about that pressure of expectations, were there folks who helped you realize that, even when you stumbled, you were still amazing; you were more than just that moment?

We all come from legacies. We all have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who did things in their lives, and they had expectations of what you were going to do in your life, but that decision really comes down to, what traditions, and what culture.

Kweku: I think there were several teachers who did that. And often it was the teachers who didn’t try to overtly impose their will. They would have a conversation with you and try to understand you. I remember one of my teachers, Mr. Fitzpatrick. He was my geography teacher in grade seven, and he just had this great way of being able to connect to the students because he got to know you throughout the year. Really intimately, he knew what your favorite song was, if you wore clothes of similar colors. And he could really call out those things, and in return, when he asked the class to do something, we would do it, because we respected him. There were a lot of times when I didn’t have that relationship with teachers, and I was extremely rebellious. I daresay a troublemaker. So, if I could find a way to play or tease my teachers to get out of class, I would do it, particularly if I didn’t want to be there.

South African Flag

I had this great history teacher, Mr. Johnson, who made history animated, and he allowed you to go off and learn on your own and bring that back into the classroom. I think it applies to our kids, because one thing I’ve realized is this: We all come from legacies. We all have parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who did things in their lives, and they had expectations of what you were going to do in your life, but that decision really comes down to your traditions and your culture. And you don’t have to carry it forward. That’s the beauty of the modern world. The hope is the child would want to carry it forward and understand what it means, but that’s not always the case, due to a number of circumstances. I think the best thing that we can do for our children is to encourage them and also understand that often they’re here to teach us and not the other way around.

Kevin: Let’s shift the conversation for a moment. At Achieve3000, we’re really diving into questions of authentic curriculum. What do you think are the benefits of selecting text or selecting stories that share multiple perspectives that may be radically different? When we’re selecting these, how can we challenge perspectives, and especially a perspective that’s dominant, that may be the white perspective, or it may be a different kind of dominant perspective? What’s your thought about that? What’s the benefit and how can we challenge but still be careful to include?

Kweku: Inquiry challenge, when we allow differing opinions, different views to be brought to the floor, even if the main subject is something like Shakespeare, say Othello, that the class is reading. Ask the class to go away and interpret that into a modern story or find modern stories that represent that throughout their society or system in their communities and then talk about those. That’s a way of sharing and allowing people to introduce their way of life, their belief system and their culture into the conversation. I think that’s vitally important. That’s how you get multiple narratives. Ask them, how can I learn from multiple voices? But also, how can I encourage voices within my own community to feel empowered to speak freely and share their views and not feel like people may look at them differently or treat them differently, etc.?

Professional African woman

Kevin: It can be easy to generalize. But obviously, there are a lot of really diverse perspectives. And you’re a founder of Africa Rising, which I would like you to explain if you would, because I understand it is really challenging young people to rise to meet the needs in their communities. I would imagine that’s not a monolithic conversation, but a fairly diverse conversation. Talk to us about Africa Rising and your experience there.

Kweku: Africa Rising began as an organization that I started with my brother in Dublin and one of our dear friends. We had traveled around the world quite extensively and met people. And when we told them we were from South Africa, they had a very limited view and understanding of what that meant. Some people asked us things as simple as do they have escalators there too? Someone asked us if we have wild animals in our backyards. And I think we wanted to create a platform that could showcase content, and also put at the forefront positive messages coming out of the African continent. Because far too often, when you see things coming out of Africa, there’s something related to dictatorship or disease or poverty or corruption. We had a campaign that we did with Oxfam and about six other organizations, mainly in the U.K., where we advocated with these organizations that do a lot of work in Africa, to stop showing images of sick children on their websites. Or poor kids. And to start showing the more positive sides. It started the conversation of how to begin to change the narrative that they project to their communities in the world.

Kevin: I’m just sitting here thinking about conversations I’ve had literally in the last few days on the inner city of Detroit or poor areas of Pittsburgh or our friends who are on the reservation or in big schools anywhere. You can find those kinds of stories. If you think about what you just said, any thoughts about how we lift up the really positive stories in all those places in the U.S.? I mean you’re in New York, right? You could show multiple stories in New York. Some of them would be motivational. Some of them might be crushing.

Africa Rising began as an organization that I started with my brother in Dublin, and one of our dear friends. We had traveled around the world quite extensively and met people. And when we told them we were from South Africa, they had a very limited view and understanding of what that meant.

Kweku: I think you have to spend time in those communities. That’s the first thing. I moved to Red Hook. And I remember meeting this young kid, Robert, just a really amazing kid from one of the housing communities in New York. He managed to not only go and do an internship for Google, and now be employed by Google, but he started a Wi-Fi network during Hurricane Sandy. He talked about how that was the one defining time that brought together both sides of the community. If you don’t know Red Hook, Brooklyn, in New York, it’s a really interesting kind of coastal suburb, largely like a fishing port. So it’s got that kind of feeling to it, and at the same time, it also has some of the biggest housing communities in New York. It’s largely divided between one side, which has artists and people who have money, and then this housing project. Robert talked about the fact that water was rising six feet and then 12 feet; electricity was out, and people didn’t have access to get supplies, and how the neighborhood came together. Really, because they were connected through this Wi-Fi network. He was 16 at the time, and these young kids were literally going on rooftops and putting up these Wi-Fi.

I think for me, that was such a compelling story. I was like, you have to write this down. You know, you have to let people know what it says. Right? And I think, again, that’s the importance of us being able to spend time in these communities, because you know what the education system is like, you know the need to have more diverse voices when it comes to publishing books and content.

I found the importance is just, again, to listen. I give them honest feedback and potential criticism when I need to. But at the same time, I overwhelmingly encourage them that they can impact their communities. Because I think, at times, that’s one of the hardest things for them to understand.
I found the importance is just, again, to listen. I give them honest feedback and potential criticism when I need to. But at the same time, I overwhelmingly encourage them that they can impact their communities. Because I think, at times, that’s one of the hardest things for them to understand.

Kevin: Thinking about your experience, not just with young people in South Africa, but all of our young people, what have you found resonates in helping them to lift their vision and find that pride inside themselves?

Kweku: Mostly listening. You realize they’ve actually got a lot to say. And a lot of the times they’re figuring stuff out on the go. Just understand that and then be able to reassure them, because there is this duality among millennials and Gen Z. On the one hand, they’re really, really confident, very impressive. But they mirror, in a sense, the society around them, which is, at this moment, lots of technology and social media. So you can go from being a hero to a zero very quickly within that paradigm, and I think they reflect that. I found the importance is just, again, to listen. I give them honest feedback and potential criticism when I need to. But at the same time, I overwhelmingly encourage them that they can impact their communities. Because I think, at times, that’s one of the hardest things for them to understand.

End of Part 1
Stay tuned for part two of this conversation with Kweku Mandela in the next edition of Achieve Magazine.