A Conversation with
Kweku
Mandela Part Two
Mandela
Part Two
Kweku Mandela headshot
E

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

Kevin Baird: I’m thinking about this really ancient wisdom, in my view, like in Hawaii. We talk about how you’re creating your reality in the stories you’re telling yourself. Thinking about your experience, not just with young people in South Africa, but all our young people, what have you found resonates, helping them to lift their vision and find that pride inside themselves?

Kweku Mandela: Listening. They’ve actually got a lot to say. Sometimes too much to say, but they have something to say. A lot of the times they’re figuring stuff out on the go. Just understand that and then be able to reassure them.

I think there is this duality amongst millennials and Gen Z’s. In one sense, they’re really, really confident, and I’m very impressed. Right? But they mirror, in a sense, the society around them. Which is, at this moment, lots of technology and social media, and so you can go from being a hero to zero really quickly within that paradigm. And I think they reflect that. So, 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 community. Because at times, that’s one of the hardest things for them to understand.

Kevin Baird: Kweku, could you speak to the importance of literacy, or even literary texts, for your grandfather? We have a note here that there are a lot of surprises that come up before Nelson Mandela in the poem, and this comes up regularly. How did that play in his life?

Kweku Mandela: No, I don’t even know if he liked that. Hollywood, putting two and two together, being like, ‘Oh, great poem.’ We can associate this with Mandela. That’s what I heard the truth is, but Morgan Freeman will probably tell you another story.

Kevin Baird: But he was a boxer, right? So, I love that we know that he was a boxer. And that was important.

And I think for me, that’s singularly one of the most important questions, because far too often we think our freedom is what everybody else’s freedom is.
Mandela headshot
And I think for me, that’s singularly one of the most important questions, because far too often we think our freedom is what everybody else’s freedom is.

Kweku Mandela: It was important, but it was more important as a trend because of two things, the discipline that it brought to his life, and the other aspect was the respect you gained for an opponent. And he felt those two things were vitally important to grounding who he was as a person.

Kevin Baird: South Africa was born in part out of the struggle with apartheid, in the same way that the United States was born out of a struggle with slavery, and it can be really hard to have those discussions about bias, about inequality. Really personal conversations. In your experience, are there ways that you found to successfully bridge that level of discomfort to get to the real heart, the real meat of those conversations?

Kweku Mandela: I think you can. I talked about this with the film “Dreamland.” You can’t prejudge someone. And I think that’s something that’s actually done in America. Too often, because someone lives in the middle of America, or what they’re calling Trump country right now, they’re instantly labeled as backwards or less educated and all of these things, and it’s very much a coastal mindset, and vice versa. They’re saying the same things about people on the coasts—that they’re intellectuals; they don’t have to struggle.

Many different cultural faces
I think there is this duality amongst millennials and Gen Z’s. In one sense, they’re really, really confident and I’m very impressed. Right? But they mirror, in a sense, the society around them. Which is, at this moment, lots of technology and social media, and so you can go from being a hero to zero really quickly within that paradigm.

And so, you create this world where you can’t even have a conversation. You can’t get to a point where you can learn from each other, or learn about each other, because you’re so caught up in the labels that exist. I think one of the best? things that South Africa was able to do was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were able to have restorative justice, where a number of things were addressed. There’s still a lot of work to be done in the country, but people are, at a very basic level, able to have these conversations, even if they’re uncomfortable, and address them and learn from them.

And that process is extremely slow, but you have to start with it. I think for far too long, American politics, and just the landscape of how people interact, is very separated, and the dominant view has been from your major metropolitan cities. But the reality is, this country is far bigger than that.

And so, there needs to be a process where those people’s voices are heard, because they’re the ones who are marginalized. And all too often, we don’t think of them as marginalized. I remember going to give a talk at Brigham Young University in Utah. It’s a Mormon Institute, and it was interesting to me. When I started my speech, I said, “When I first found out about Mormons, it was mainly through the media.” I wish I had come to Utah before and actually met people that were Mormons, because there are a lot of virtues that they have that I aspired to have, such as searching for perfection. All really unique things. One of the problems that I think Mormon culture has, is that very few people from the actual Mormon community are comfortable telling people they’re Mormons. So, we don’t know what the average everyday Mormon is like, right? We only know what the mainstream media tells us they are.

Collage of people's silhouettes in various races

And so, I go back to my point; I think there needs to be a process here that focuses on creating dialogue among these different ideologies and views. Because we can disagree, but we can also find common ground, but that comes through us, going in with an unfiltered expectation and no prejudgment around things.

Kevin Baird: Wow, that is really powerful. If you think about that conversation, you’ve also spoken about the power of convening. The National Literacy Summit is an example of that. In January, we’re bringing together leaders with the historically Black colleges and universities, and district folks, all in that power of convening.

And so, I go back to my point, I think there needs to be a process here that focuses on creating dialogue among these different ideologies and views. Because we can disagree, but we can also find common ground, but that comes through us, going in with an unfiltered expectation and no prejudgment around things.

How do you see the power of convening being a part of what you were just talking about, because you know our district leadership. The folks who are reading this conversation right now, they have the power to convene conversations, very often in their communities. Any thoughts?

Kweku Mandela: I think you can go well beyond parent-teacher conferences and solely school events. I think this is again a lesson from South Africa. Because Africa knew that a number of elder generations have been deeply affected by apartheid, they actually use schools as forums to help teach parents new things, whether it was workshops where they can learn additional skills or just have an area where they can go and have conversations about the things they struggle and deal with. It wasn’t always tied to or associated with the kids. I think that schools play a massive role, and being these kinds of melting pots, in these meeting places, for communities as a whole. It’s obviously more difficult now because everything’s virtual, but I don’t think that should stop us.

Kevin Baird: Yeah, you know, as a filmmaker, I’m looking at a couple of the questions. When you think about telling stories, sometimes hard stories, do you think that it’s important to leave things out? What do you think about editing or omitting some parts of the past, or do you think it’s important to put it all out there and let the audience wrestle with it? How do you do that as a filmmaker?

If you don’t know that there’s basically 6.7 billion people that exist on this planet with you, and they know their own culture. They have their own passions, their own sports, their own food cuisine. If you don’t take the opportunity to learn about that, to understand that, then you’re living in this kind of echo chamber and that’s not healthy for anybody.
Space view of world
If you don’t know that there’s basically 6.7 billion people that exist on this planet with you, and they know their own culture. They have their own passions, their own sports, their own food cuisine. If you don’t take the opportunity to learn about that, to understand that, then you’re living in this kind of echo chamber and that’s not healthy for anybody.

Kweku Mandela: I mean, it’s a process and you’re collaborating with a lot of people. So usually, the majority view kind of wins out. Because of that, it depends on the nature of the film. I once made a film called Africa United, which was about a group of kids from Rwanda who wanted to go to the Soccer World Cup Opening Ceremony in South Africa, and they basically hip checked their way down. And I remember telling the director, if you’re trying to appeal to young kids, you can’t have any swear words; as soon as you have swear words, they’re going to give you a PG-16 rating. She was like, ‘No, no, it’s fine.’ And sure enough, when she tried to sell the film, every distributor told her, ‘Yeah, we can’t take this, because you have swear words in it.’

So, there’s obviously that aspect when it comes to material that you’re weighing. Should I pull out certain themes or certain subjects? You have to use your own discretion. In those situations, rely on the community if you’re really worried about it. Check in with parents; check in with your other faculty members and see what they think as well.

Kevin Baird: By the way, just a shout-out. In the Achieve3000 platform, we try to make sure that everyone is represented. So, periodically, we have articles that represent LGBTQ youth, and there was a parent recently who had a concern about that. The district stepped up and said, ‘The child doesn’t have to read about that, but these are our kids, and we want to make sure that they’re all represented.’

When we think about the amount of content and stories from Africa or stories from Haiti or Kenya, I certainly receive some questions. Maybe a few odd looks, like why we would bring stories from Africa or Kenya, or Haiti to youth in America.

Kweku Mandela: Maybe it’s something that does need to be looked at, right? Can you have true empathy; can you have a true understanding of the world; can you be a full functional part of human society, if you don’t know the basic tenets of human society?

Painting of the hands of all different races touching a heart

If you don’t know that there’s basically 6.7 billion people that exist on this planet with you, and they know their own culture. They have their own passions, their own sports, their own food cuisine. If you don’t take the opportunity to learn about that, to understand that, then you’re living in this kind of echo chamber, and that’s not healthy for anybody. And I think you know it’s time that we had a reckoning about that. Broadening one’s horizons does not have to be scary and understanding something that is different does not have to be scary.

Kevin Baird: Kweku, in our last two minutes, tell us what’s next for you? What are your next projects? What’s the next opportunity to impact the world for Kweku Mandela?

Kweku Mandela: You know, I just became a father about a year ago, so my focus is very much on my son. Making sure he feels loved and can understand and navigate the world, but I’m also working on something around my grandfather’s legacy called The Freedom Project.

And one of the first initiatives that we’ve created is a radio station that we’re going to launch next year, called Freedom Radio. Anyone around the world can call in, using a local number, and you get these prompts that begin to ask you what freedom means to you.

And I think for me, that’s singularly one of the most important questions, because far too often we think our freedom is what everybody else’s freedom is. And the reality is, it isn’t. The freedom here that people experience in America around liberty and freedom of speech and the general tenants of what the Constitution allows and adheres to, are not necessarily the same freedoms that a young kid who’s now in a refugee camp in Greece experiences. He wants freedom of movement, probably; or a young kid in Africa who wants to know freedom of broadband, so he can access technology better. And so it really is different. I think what I want to do is understand those differences, but also find the commonality.