Reflection on Freedom Park School

Reflection on Freedom Park School

Steve Polo

One of the greatest leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela, was buried on December 15, 2013 in his home village of Qunu in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Good fortune gave OPX a special connection to Nelson Mandela.

In 2001, we were asked by one of our clients to begin a prototype for Nelson Mandela’s Education Initiative in Johannesburg, and we were asked to design it pro bono. Like most businesses, we give to a variety of charities throughout each year, but we had never been asked to undertake such a substantial charitable project. And like most businesses, we knew it would be a challenge to find enough spare time to design the prototype. Initially we agreed to do the design out of loyalty to our friend and client, but we soon realized that was the least important reason for doing it.

The system for providing education facilities in Johannesburg and the surrounding townships was complicated and ill-equipped to deal with their current realities. Our school was designed to accommodate just 30 classrooms while the school district where the school was to be built was short 600 classrooms! After our trip to view the site, it was clear our contribution was more than just a good deed; it would have a lasting significance far beyond the work itself.

While we reflect on the life of Nelson Mandela, we wanted to share our experience of the dedication of the school we designed for his home village. The following letter was written by OPX Managing Partner Steve Polo and describes the emotions of an occasion so meaningful to OPX history.

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Dear Friends and Colleagues:

Some of you may remember our letter about the school in Johannesburg we designed for Nelson Mandela’s Education Initiative more than three years ago. Shortly after the design was finished, the project ran into problems – so many problems we thought the school would never be built. But we were wrong.

Today was the day. Today was the day the school opened.

The years of political wrangling, community debate, government red-tape, consensus building and fundraising are over and now more than 700 students have a school, a direction and a future.

This morning at the opening, our client who contributed the funds to build the school, reminded the audience that the people of South Africa, and by extension the world, now have a greater future than they could have imagined before the school existed. The students, who now have the opportunity to get an education, also have the opportunity to change their world and ours. The next scientist, the next inventor, the next teacher, possibly the next Nelson Mandela, could be a student from the Freedom Park School.

Nelson Mandela came to celebrate the opening and dedicate the school. As he entered, the audience exploded into joyous celebration. Then, as if on cue, the group of over 2,000 people broke into song – a song of freedom and celebration, “Nelson Mandela.” The people sang as if they would never stop. I’m not sure how long the singing lasted this morning, but I can still hear it.

This afternoon at the hotel, someone asked me what it was like to see the school built and to have Nelson Mandela dedicate it. I’m not sure what I said, but what I heard was: “What was it like to a part of the future of children, of a fragile democratic experiment, of a county, and of the world?” My answer would have been that it was like nothing I ever imagined and everything I could imagine, and something I’ll never forget.

So today is another day and, like the Freedom Park School, any good thing can happen.

Steve Polo

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