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23 November

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President Nelson Mandela



Sacred Heart Marist College Johannesburg

14/01/2014: South Africa

Under apartheid all people in South Africa were classified according to race and ethnic group. Likewise all residential areas and facilities were allocated according to a person’s racial classification. So there were schools for white children, Indian children, mixed-race children, for Zulu speakers, for Xhosa speakers etc. The white schools generally had the best qualified teachers and better facilities.

For many years the leaders of Catholic schools in South Africa had discussed the need to admit pupils to Catholic schools regardless of Government classification. Finally in the mid-1970’s some Catholic schools, officially schools for white children, began to admit children regardless of their racial classification. Among these were the Marist Brothers schools in South Africa. By 1990, following initial threats of closure and years of intensive negotiations, the Apartheid Government finally relented and black pupils were admitted more freely to schools formerly designated as white schools.  By then, Sacred Heart College, one of the three Marist schools in Johannesburg, already had a substantial number of black pupils.

The Principal of the Junior School at the time was Br Joseph Walton, at present the Provincial of the Province of Southern Africa.

After about a month of his departure, we want to remember him through an interview with Brother Joseph talking about the relationship between Marist and Nelson Mandela.


Br Joseph, you were Principal of Sacred Heart Junior School in Johannesburg when Mr. Mandela’s grandchildren were at the school?

Yes, I remember when they came to enroll the grandchildren in February 1991. Mrs. Winnie Mandela and her daughter Zinzi came to the School office; I was sent for and spoke with them about Sacred Heart College. The following day three children came to write the entrance test and were duly accepted. This was the start of a good relationship with the family.


Do you recall how many grandchildren were at the school?

At the start there were three children but the number grew during the course of the year. I think we had 8 of Nelson Mandela’s grandchildren at one stage.


Did Mr. Mandela ever visit the school?

We were very fortunate to have had many visits from Nelson Mandela to the school. Mandela came to visit before he became President of South Africa and then when he was President. Some of the visits were informal while others took place when he was invited to particular functions. At other times he would simply come to events to be present for his grandchildren. He loved being with children. He was very pleased that children of all races were being educated together at Sacred Heart College. It was the fulfillment of one of his dreams for South Africa! 


Can you tell us about one or two occasions when he visited the school?

There are many occasions he came that were special for us at Sacred Heart College. I remember the first time he came. It was to see his grandchildren at a swimming Gala on a Saturday morning between official meetings. At that time he was negotiating an agreement for the elections. On another occasion I was called one evening to the Junior Primary School Campus where they were due to have a concert. He had come early as one of the grandchildren had given him the wrong time. I was called to keep him company while we waited for the concert to begin. He was always interested in the school and the education being offered at the school. At that time we had introduced an Integrated Studies Programme as the way of instruction so I was quizzed on the system.

On yet another occasion, while President, he came unannounced to a parent evening where the class teachers were meeting with parents and guardians to inform them about what was expected of them during the academic year. Nelson and Graçia Machel came with a few security guards to meet one of the teachers of his grandchildren. This was a grade 3 class and he showed particular interest in the teaching of reading. After the meeting he noticed that there was another couple who were obviously grandparents too. So he invited them to his nearby home for tea.

Then there was the occasion when Mr. Mandela passed the school on his way to visit one of his daughters at her home. When he saw children playing on the sports field, he asked the driver to take him into the school grounds. He climbed out of the car and spoke to the pupils emphasizing the vital importance of education. 

Another time he was invited to a Senior Primary School production “Bugsy Malone”, a musical show. The opening scene started with “gangsters” bursting into the school hall with toy guns and going wild. The security guards who were in the hall jumped up in fright, to see if the President was safe. The musical was held up for a short while until all was back to normal.

There are many more stories I could tell of Nelson Mandela’s visits to the school but I will end with a final one. At the end of one year we had our annual Carols Service. We used a nearby parish church as the number of guests would have been too big for our school chapel. Half an hour before the service was due to begin we received a message that the President would be at the service. The security guards came to look at the venue and suggested where the President should sit and in he came to enjoy the Christmas Carol service surrounded by primary school children. He had very few guards and was simple in his needs.

These are only some of the occasions that Nelson Mandela was at the college. Perhaps one last story. The school had made an appeal to the parents for funds for a new security fence around the school property. The next thing we knew was that Nelson Mandela had arranged for a donor to pay for and erect the fence. I was fortunate to be invited to the inauguration of President Mbeki when Nelson Mandela stepped down as president. The invitation came from President Nelson’s Office.


What was your impression of Mr. Mandela?

When I was in Nelson Mandela’s presence I felt at ease as he had a wonderful way of relating to people. When he walked around the school he would stop to speak with all whom he saw, whether teachers, cleaners or fieldworkers and tell them how happy he was to meet them. He made people feel good about themselves. He never saw the Presidency as making him superior to others but a chance to serve others. He was really a sensitive man who cared for people and showed such compassion for the good of all. One could not help but feel that you were in the presence of someone spiritual as he made people in his company feel good and special. We were always sad on the conclusion of his visits even though the normal class lessons were disrupted for the duration of his visits. But what great moments they were and what great memories the children who met him will have for the rest of their lives.


In your contact with Mr. Mandela what struck you most about him?

I think his great love and respect for people, particularly children. His belief that education would liberate people from poverty and help a country develop.

Br. Joseph Walton was interviewed by Br. Jude Pieterse.

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