The headmaster paced silently before the line of schoolboys, his hands clasped behind his back as he strode back and forth.
Finally, he stopped in the middle of the line before one rather thin boy with an oval face.
“Was it you? You’re behind all this, aren’t you, you troublemaker?” he asked accusingly, looking down at the lad.
The young student did not answer and stared back up at the white schoolmaster.
The boy had been given the name Rolihlahla by his family; it does indeed mean “troublemaker,” and the boy certainly grew up to embody that moniker. Born into a royal family in Africa, his father was a polytheist and a polygamist. His mother, the third of his father’s wives, had converted from the religions of her ancestors to Methodism. It was his mother who raised him, along with two sisters. She insisted that the children attend a Methodist school in a nearby village, and it was at this school that 9-year-old Rolihlahla’s proclivity for mischievousness began to manifest itself.
In this case, the trouble Rolihlahla caused was organizing a protest against, of all things, the poor quality of food at his school. His little protest saw the students refuse to eat anything until the food improved.
“Don’t you realize that we feed you well—better! than other schools?” the headmaster said, narrowing his eyes at the boy. What followed this rhetorical question was a long lecture by the headmaster about the good things that the colonizers had brought to Africa: Medicine, education, wealth, science, technology.
What was left out of the speech was that the colonizers also brought oppression and economic slavery, racism and greed.
And Rolihlahla had begun to feel a strong pull towards seeking justice where he saw injustice. That, too, was something the colonizers brought. They seemed to preach about liberty but not allow it, justice but deny it, expression but suppress it.
The boy was only implementing the lessons his “betters” were teaching him.
This protest against the food must be quashed, the headmaster said emphatically. Still, the boy remained silent.
“Well?” the headmaster said.
Finally, he spoke.
“Yes. I organized it. I put the others up to it. The food is of poor quality, and the students should eat what the teachers and staff eat.”
The headmaster pursed his lips in a triumphant smile.
“And, what’s more,” the boy continued, “I am correct.”
The headmaster’s smile vanished. “I am very sorry you feel that way,” he began. He dismissed the other boys, and then addressed the troublemaker.
“You are expelled. I will write a letter to your family. You are dismissed.”
Now it was the troublemaker’s turn to smile slightly.
“You find this matter amusing?” the headmaster asked.
“No, sir,” the boy answered. “I find it unjust.”
For Nelson Mandela, this first lesson on injustice would never be forgotten.