Maqubela (far right) and her students during a visit to Rhodes University

Mandela Day

Living Every Day Like it’s Mandela Day

In South Africa, 24-year-old Thina Maqubela is taking post-apartheid educational reform into her own hands.

Social entrepreneur Thina Maqubela is odd for a South African: at 24 years old, she’s currently working on a PhD and is a Statistics lecturer at Rhodes University. Although these occupations are common for American millenials, for a young, female South African these are remarkable accomplishments… And that’s the problem.

Nelson Mandela famously said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world,” yet it’s floundering in his homeland. Apartheid in South Africa ended twenty years ago, but schools in areas where nonwhites were segregated under apartheid, the townships, are still disadvantaged. These urban communities are usually underdeveloped, and for their predominantly black residents, the struggle is real.

“Because of its inability to provide quality public schooling for all, the government finds itself saddled with the biggest failing of post-apartheid South Africa,” wrote T. O. Molefe for The New York Times this past January. “While apartheid’s legal mechanisms may have been dismantled, apartheid continues in the classroom and the job market.”

Maqubela was born and raised in a township in Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality called Motherwell. “The major challenge I faced and overcame was the inability to access proper schooling in South Africa,” said Maqubela. “We lack science laboratories and computer laboratories. I did a math and science track in high school, so this was really a disadvantage in terms of preparing me for university.” In fact, South Africa ranked last of 148 countries for the quality of its math and science education, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report. (It was 146th out of 148 for general education quality.) South Africa’s “most problematic factor” was an “inadequately educated workforce,” and the report concluded that “raising educational standards and making the labor market more efficient will be critical in view of the country’s high unemployment rate of over 20 percent, with the rate of youth unemployment estimated at close to 50 percent.”

Although South Africa pours a bigger portion of its GDP into education than any other country in Africa, about 27% of public schools lack running water, 78% don’t have libraries and 78% don’t have computers, according to Unicef. In 2009, The New York Times reported an instance at a South African high school in which students protested because a teacher rarely showed up to class. The protest erupted into a violent riot: bricks were thrown, two teachers were punched, and another was stabbed in the head with a pair of scissors.

After years of being an overachiever and immersing herself in her studies, Maqubela escaped her township and began her undergraduate career at the University of Cape Town. “When entering university, I had lots of adjusting to do,” she explains. She spent her first two years learning how to use a computer—she had lacked access to one before—and knew that this was a skill she should’ve acquired earlier. “If you look at the statistics, most kids from township schools drop out from [school] due to academic exclusion,” Maqubela said. Although she completed her studies on time, it took mountains of effort and support from UBUNTU Education Fund, an NGO that provides cradle-to-career programs offering world-class health care, long-term education support and household counseling to township children. UBUNTU also helped her apply to West Virginia University, where she later earned her Masters of Science degree in Statistics.

Maqubela, representing the 2013 graduating class of international students at West Virginia University

After years of tutoring disadvantaged students, Maqubela joined UBUNTU and created the Future Leaders Program (FLP), of which she continues to be a part. Her goal was to help gifted Grade 12 township students avoid the challenges she went through by helping them access university opportunities. “Most teachers were trained under the apartheid system, which was not adequate, particularly for the black teachers,” said Maqubela. “The system didn't prepare us well.”

The FLP consists of tutoring, academic advising and career guidance, opportunities to interact with professionals and students in relevant fields, and workshops for social and life skills support. The program’s tutors also strive to teach students the importance of conceptual understanding (as opposed to procedural), and encourage students to take charge of their own education. At first, the program had two goals: a 65% pass rate and 50% placement in universities. They achieved both, and have since achieved a 93% pass rate. FLP arranges Career Days, university visits, and teambuilding events, and the students are coached by young, relatable tutors. Parental involvement is strongly encouraged. It’s no wonder that Maqubela recently became the youngest recipient of the Businesswoman’s Association of South Africa’s award for Excellence in Social Entrepreneurship. 

Maqubela’s students at a trip to Volkswagen to expose students to careers in science

“Maya Angelou said, ‘When you know better, you do better,’” said Maqubela. “Education, honestly, is the only way to succeed. It’s the only way out of many obstacles in life.”

Maqubela herself is living proof of this. As the daughter and granddaughter of women who sold fruits and vegetables for a living, she was the first person in her family to graduate from a university, and that has enabled her to progress beyond the maternal family business. Although her education would allow her to get a more lucrative job, she has chosen to work in education, because she realizes that South Africa still has a long way to go.

“What Mandela and others who were part of the struggle did was to pave the way for us, [allowing] us to access better opportunities than our parents had, like going to universities, scholarships, and going abroad. To me, that freedom of opportunity is what Mandela did for me and for others in South Africa,” said Maqubela. “Their legacy continues through this program, because all they wanted is equality for all. [The FLP] strives to make sure that regardless of the schooling a child had access to, they also benefit and strive in the best universities, not only in South Africa, but across the world.”

On April 20, 1964, while facing the death penalty, Nelson Mandela gave his now-famous “Speech from the Dock,” which included the following lines: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela International Day, July 18, was launched to inspire the next generation to become leaders and take the world’s social injustices into their own hands. Maqubela’s hands have been full for years, living every day like it’s Mandela Day by striving to improve the world and level the playing field for those who were born deprived. Although Mandela passed away last December, his spirit and his legacy lives on.

“South Africa has lots of potential,” Maqubela told me. “I am just one example of what the country is capable of. We need more individuals who will recognize the fact that apartheid did a lot of damage.  It is important to unleash that potential, nurture it, and let it grow.”

As she says, quoting Mandela, in her email signature: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but rising every time we fall.”

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