Reading biographies written for kids, and learning about important leaders from around the world and challenges they have overcome gives children examples of character traits, perspective on current events, and expands their ideas about other countries. The activities in this article are geared towards the older elementary grades.
You may know that Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned 27 years, elevated to President of South Africa in 1991 and subsequently won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. He was (and is) a champion of children’s rights and once said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” He wrote about his extraordinarily inspiring life in his 1994 autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.” Chris Van Wyck later edited this abridged version for children. It chronicles his life, focusing on his days as an activist fighting against apartheid. Clearly written and filled with historical details, it is appropriate for ages 8 and up. I did read this to my 6 year olds (who didn’t fully grasp the subject), and they especially enjoyed the full-page paintings that illustrated his challenges without being graphically inappropriate for younger readers. While older elementary school students can obviously understand civil rights more deeply, the explanations I gave these first graders were very simple and straightforward: “some people were mean to others who had different colored skin than they did.”
Before reading the story, I think is important to give kids an introduction adapted by you, at a level that they can understand. For adults to read, the BBC has a nice summary of Nelson Mandela on their history page. With your kids, find South Africa on a map and show them that it is the country on the southern tip of Africa. Notice the capital is Pretoria- not nearby Johannesburg! South Africa has a long coastline, and shares a border with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. The country of Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa:Discuss the situation with your children in a way they can comprehend:
- The South African government was all white. They made all of the laws and prohibited blacks from voting, attending a quality school, being out after dark, living and working in many areas, etc. This system of dividing- segregating- people based on their skin color was called apartheid. These laws and discrimination left blacks living in poverty.
- Although the whites were in power, they were a minority. The population of South Africa during the time of apartheid was 71% black, 16% white, 10% mixed, 3% Asian.
- In the 1950′s, there were many protests and demonstrations against the laws. People did not think the segregation was fair and tried to gather together to voice their opinion. Protesters were put in jail for fighting against the unfair laws. Nelson Mandela was in jail for 27 years doing hard-labor and have virtually no contact with the outside world.
After the introduction, read the book with your children. Why is Nelson Mandela admired around the world? What characteristics does he have that made him a good leader? Think about his 27 years in jail. What would be the hardest part about that time? If you could meet Nelson Mandela, what would you like to ask him?
Oxfam Education has a lesson based on this book and other biographies on Nelson Mandela, designed for ages 10-12. It discusses the differences between fact, fiction, opinion as well as explaining a autobiography versus biography.
Another great book to accompany your Nelson Mandela lesson is The Day Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Batezat Sisulu. In this story, a little girl helps her 100 year old great-grandmother (Gogo) to go and cast her first vote during the first free elections in South Africa, that elected Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa. Each page is illustrated beautifully, and the warm story gives a lovely, more personal perspective to the historical event. Many parents may remember the newspaper stories and pictures of the long lines to vote when apartheid ended in 1994.
This extensive list of children’s literature that features South Africa contains wonderful stories of kids around the country.
If you are in South Africa, visit the Nelson Mandela Museum to see Mandela’s school and home, and learn more about his inspiring life.
Nelson Mandela was awarded the The World’s Children’s Prize in 2005, and named Decade Child Rights Hero 2009, for his lifelong struggle to free the children of South Africa from apartheid, and for his unwavering support for their rights. The World’s Children’s Prize works to promote “the growth and development of a more humane global community through integrated global educational programs, engaging a growing number of children throughout the world.” worldschildrensprize.org