Thank you: Two incredible words I never expected to hear from Nelson Mandela
At 21, Robert Yates was unhappy at the state of the world. Determined to take positive action, he volunteered with VSO in Tanzania, where he supported young South Africans exiled by apartheid.
Young, eager and wanting to make a difference
“I had grown up in a small working class family just outside Liverpool, in the UK. It was the 1980s; there was a huge recession going on and not a lot of jobs.
“I saw an advert in the newspaper for a role with VSO and decided to apply."
Robert eventually found a school in Tanzania where he would work as a carpentry instructor. For his family, the thought of Robert travelling so far away by himself was dramatic – after all, it was 1987:
“It’s difficult to imagine now, but this is before Skype and social media. I think my family were daunted by it but they were really supportive.”
Creating something to leave behind
Once in Tanzania, Robert was placed in Dakawa, 70km north of Morogoro - a camp for exiled South Africans on land given to the ANC by the Tanznian government. There he worked at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College - an active secondary school and furniture factory that worked with the African National Congress (ANC) party based in South Africa.
At the time, South Africa was under apartheid, a white supremacist system of racial segregation that had oppressed the black African population since the 1940s. The ANC had been founded to fight against this injustice, but its leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned and many of its members and supporters had fled the country.
“In those days, if you were living in South Africa and you were looking to fight apartheid, you had the option of going into exile and joining the anti-apartheid movement in other countries.”
“The premise of the college where I was based was that the young South Africans in exile would learn to build houses and schools. When the students left to go home, they would leave those houses and schools as a thank you to the Tanzanian government, while taking home with them the skills to build a new free South Africa.”
Restless to return
“Even though one of the rules of those exiled was not to listen to South African radio, everybody wanted to know what was going on at home.
“When news started to leak out in 1990 about Mandela being released – there was an enormous wave of euphoria.”
After 27 years, Nelson Mandela had finally been freed from prison. He travelled far and wide addressing crowds of people who had supported him for years while he was behind bars.
In March 1990, he gave a speech to the 50,000 people that had gathered at Morogoro Stadium, in Tanzania – with Robert among them.
“I was sitting with two friends of mine, who said I needed to stand up. There were only seven or eight of us volunteers present in the audience. Mandela said, ‘We must applaud the contribution made by the international community. I want to thank you and I want my comrades to thank you.'
"Here was someone who had been in prison for almost three decades thanking the work of volunteers from around the world for standing in solidarity with South Africans in the fight to end apartheid."
“I think it made me realise you can contribute a great deal in two years. But if you want to change the world, you kind of have to make it a lifelong commitment.
My contribution mattered
“After that meeting it was much easier to get on with everyday life. Because Mandela had said, ‘when we come to rebuild South Africa we will need all the skills we can get, so keep studying, keep learning, you need to work hard.’ It was a marker for people to focus."
In July 1991, Robert returned home – and he wasn’t the only one. By this time, some of his students were being repatriated to a country they loved but barely knew:
“Some of them hadn’t been in South Africa for 20 years. They didn’t know whether their homes or anything they left behind would be there. The excitement of going home was tempered by the reality of what it would be like when they got there.”
Playing your part in history
“I’ll never shy away from the fact that VSO changed my life,” says Robert
Back in the UK, Robert pursued a degree in International Development, returning to Tanzania as a project manager for VSO. Now, he manages the prestigious Mandela Scholarship programme at the University of Sussex, encouraging bright students from South Africa to pursue Masters Degrees at the University of Sussex.
“The lesson I learnt from VSO is to never underestimate the contribution you could make, however small. It will be of value, though it may not appear like that to you. In someone else's eyes whatever little you have to give could be significant.”