How Madiba made us better parents


*This article was first published in 6 December 2013 and updated 26 April 2018

"There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." Nelson Mandela

If you point to the man’s face on one of the bank notes and ask your kids to whom that face belongs you may be surprised that they’ll know the answer. Not only that, but very often they’ll know some of the reasons why Nelson Mandela has become a global icon.

Discussing Madiba gave me many opportunities to chat to my own children about history, tolerance, forgiveness and leadership. All over South Africa, those Madiba conversations have had an immense impact on children growing up in the Rainbow Nation.

But Dad, only bad men go to prison!

One fact children will recite about Madiba is that he was in prison for 27 years. Most children understand the concept of imprisonment as one relating to crime and Bad Men.

When you try and simplify the story of his imprisonment for young ears, it becomes even more astounding. He was in prison, but the people who sent him there were the ‘Bad Men’! Although there are many contexts which need to be added to this story in order to give a balanced history, kids can’t help but remember Madiba’s imprisonment.

Now, if I’d been unjustly imprisoned, I would have had daydreams of revenge which I would have made reality upon my escape- that’s what children understand. But then you tell them how Mandela managed to focus on the greater good of a nation and put thoughts of revenge to one side, and kids will, appropriately, be astounded.

I don’t often discuss politics with my own children, apart from in the context of social justice, but it’s impossible to separate SA from Tata Madiba, the “Father of the Nation”, as he has been termed. His own story and his actions are inseparable from those which got SA restored to the global community.

Instead of this country being referred to with disdain, we were given the opportunity of becoming a role model for peaceful restitution.

I never sat down to dinner with the man, and never observed him with his children. I’ve seen footage of him enjoying his family, surrounded by happy youngsters.

Recent events have helped to reinforce that hero worship of fallible humans can lead to disappointment, so I’d be wary of saying anyone is above reproach, but there are plenty of admirable traits in the life of Madiba worth pointing out to children.

No matter what your political viewpoints, there’s a chance that you’d have enjoyed an audience with him.

Imagine trying to discuss Apartheid without discussing Madiba’s role in ending that tyranny. Topical conversations about race would be that much more complicated without the footnote of equality as signed by Nelson Mandela.

The future is not for us, but for our children

When Madiba was still alive, he never missed an opportunity to encourage everyone from global leaders to the unemployed masses in placing the rights of children at the forefront of everything.

His vision for South Africa was woven with the concept that children really are the future of the nation, and that if we do not care for them, we are committing social suicide.

Don’t forget the colourful shirts and his delight in dancing. Perhaps we can also remember to keep our own lives colourful, to keep looking for excuses to dance with the total abandon that children have, even when we are old.

Nelson Mandela was always quick to observe his own humanity, recognising that he was no superhero. This releases us as parents from trying to be the best we can but feeling defeated when we get it wrong, as we all do sometimes. We're human.

Empowering a generation

What will we as parents choose to do with the legacy of the great man?

We can continue to strive for equality in our homes and schools, teach our children how to live with respect for one another and help them to live lives considerate of those less fortunate, or merely spend those bank note ‘Randelas’ and let the legacy become part of a dust-covered archive.

We’ve already witnessed the steady dilution of his dream, but as individuals we can empower future generations.

Thank you Madiba for inspiring us as parents and for helping us to raise socially aware children. Rest In Peace, Tata.

What do your children know about Nelson Mandela? Why not ask them, and share their stories with us by emailing to and we could publish your letter.

Read more: 

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to receive Parent24 stories directly to your inbox.  

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24