Change the world


The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be much more than just a health crisis, but a societal one that has once again laid bare the country’s deep social crevices. 

South Africa is recognised among the most unequal countries in the world and this pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in our society and placed the poor and the vulnerable in even greater hardship and deprivation.

Since the emergence of the pandemic, Nelson Mandela University, as an engaged institution anchored in its resolve towards social justice, has been engaged in a number of initiatives to contribute to the broader societal efforts to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.

One of these was to fast track the establishment of the Nelson Mandela University Convergence Fund, which aims to contribute to addressing the plight of vulnerable communities adversely affected by the many socio-economic challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. The Convergence Fund was established in April 2020, and is rooted in the Nelson Mandela University’s engagement philosophy of convergence, where the University and society come together to jointly seek solutions to the grand challenges of our times.

Meanwhile, during the early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Paul Sutherland, founder of Utopia Foundation who was living in Nicaragua at the time, had begun doing research around the effects of the pandemic on children’s’ well-being, and the role that reading could play in building their resilience – particularly for children in South Africa.

Founded in 2007, the Utopia Foundation works across the world to invest in projects that create sustainable improvements in the livelihoods of those in need. Having worked on various school programmes in Uganda and other East African schools, Sutherland had repeatedly seen the power of books at work in the lives of children. After learning that due to the national lockdown schools had shut down across South Africa – leaving children with little to no access to books to read while at home – he began looking for potential partners in South Africa who could help change this.

Shortly thereafter, Sutherland came across the Nelson Mandela University Convergence Fund, and shared that he “got excited about the possibilities of collaborating with an organization that is named after one of [his] heroes”. After getting in touch with Dr Ossie Franks, the chairperson of the Nelson Mandela University’s Convergence Fund’s Steering Committee, the two agreed that the goal behind the project would not merely be to handout books to a few randomly selected schools, but rather to involve the University’s employees, existing community partners, and especially students, in every part of the process – particularly on the ground. The value of handing the books to each individual child, reading with them for a short while, and giving them a warm smile – albeit covered by a mask – was not to be underestimated, and this focus on making each individual child feel seen and loved was what guided the project as a whole.

Along with Sutherland, Karla Cordero, Executive Director of Utopia Foundation, was involved in every step of bringing the project to life. Cordero shared the sentiment that the value of books, especially in times of crisis, could not be overstated. “Sure, a book can teach reading; it can be strategically written to teach phonics or literacy - and that’s important. But a book can also offer experience - the touch of it, holding it, flipping the pages, turning it upside down to see what a character’s smile looks like from a different perspective. Knowing this impact and having seen it for ourselves was also inspiration behind helping develop this [project]”, said Cordero. 

When asked why the foundation specifically chose to focus on a book project during the pandemic – a time when many non-profit organizations were focusing their efforts into immediate food and material relief – she shared that “in a time of uncertainty, unease, loneliness, fear, and anxiety, we believed that if fun books found their way into the hands of young kids, teachers, parents, grandparents (anyone!), then a glimmer of hope, excitement, connection, love and happiness would also be shared”.

The project included eight carefully selected books in an attempt to share exactly that. Each of the books, written by Sutherland, are mostly used in pre-primary and primary school classes, but the messages behind the books are suitable for all ages. From the 7-year-old girl in Grade 1 receiving the book bag, to her 17-year-old brother preparing for university, all the way to their 70-year-old Gogo, the heart behind the project was not just to reach the children receiving the books, but to impact their friends, families and communities at large.

According to Sutherland, each book is designed to “foster character and resilience, and to help inspire a child’s emotional, cooperative and relationship intelligences”. As a father of 6, Sutherland is no stranger to the power of books to connect people, and knew that giving parents and caretakers a tool to help connect with their children during lockdown would be invaluable.

From ‘A Boy Named Justice’ which is all about courage and how to stand up for justice by practicing values, virtues and love, to ‘Happy Girl Happy Boy’ which focuses on emotional intelligence and tools to navigate different emotions, each book brings to light an important message and aims to equip, empower and encourage its readers – regardless of what phase of life they are in.  

Once the books had been selected, the idea to place them in a reusable, thoughtfully designed bag arose in discussions around the sustainability of the project, and saw a collaboration with the Faculty of Humanities at the University. The talented Tarryn Rennie, a lecturer from the Department of Media and Communication, along with two of her design students – Lara van der Walt and Amy De Raedt – worked to create a book bag that would not only serve a functional purpose for the families receiving it, but that would also encapsulate the heart behind the project.

According to Rennie, the “illustrations and visual style comprised of bold, friendly, purposeful colours [that] embody the strong story-telling qualities used across the various visuals”. Much like the books, the aim in designing the bags were to appeal to the children receiving them, as well as their older siblings and parents or caretakers so that they too could use it on their way to school, work, or the shops.

Along with the book bag, the team also designed three inserts to help further communicate the heart behind the project and make it more informative and interactive. The first insert, ‘My Superhero Powers Resilience Chart’ provided a list of activities and healthy exercises children can practice when they are experiencing negative emotions. The second insert was a letter to the parents, teachers and caregivers about the value of reading, and reminded them of Nelson Mandela’s love for books and what they can learn from him. The third and final insert was a letter the children could personalize and give to their parents or caregiver, which listed various practical ways in which they can interact with, support, and love their children.

All three inserts were created in English, as well as isiXhosa, with Yonela Mashalaba from the Learning and Teaching Department, and Nobuntu Ntantiso, from the Applied Language Studies Department, serving as the project’s translators. When asked what he enjoyed most about working on the project, Mashalaba shared that it was the fact that it was something “every South African child could relate to” and that he hopes that the project will encourage households to make homework a family affair. Similarly, Ntantiso hopes that the project will encourage children to become avid readers, which will also improve their academic performance.

One of the strategic focus areas of the University is student access for success, and while the heart behind the project was to provide the children with a “glimmer of hope”, the aim was also that it would serve to improve their literary skills and overall academic performance, both now and in years to come.

With 10 000 book bags packed and ready to be distributed across thirteen local schools, the Book Bag Project has proved the power of collaboration – across departments, faculties, and even continents – to bring an idea to life, and the irreplaceable role that something as simple as books can play in spreading hope in times of crisis.

While the physical needs for immediate food relief, hand sanitizer and mask distribution remain crucial to supporting local communities during COVID-19, the emotional needs for imagination, inspiration and comfort still exist, and the hope with this project is that it will be able to meet such needs.

About the project:

The Book Bag project aims to provide around ten thousand (10,000) primary school children, from the thirteen (13) Manyano Schools and three primary schools in Cala- who work with the Faculty of Education’s Centre for Community Schools (CCS), with the following materials:

  • A beautiful calico sling bag, designed by Nelson Mandela University students and branded with the Nelson Mandela University imagery,
  • Two children's story/reading books, and
  • Three inserts - well designed and colourful brochures, - which serve as guidelines for those who will read the books to the children.  These inserts were provided in both English and isiXhosa.                                               

To date, the Nelson Mandela University Convergence Fund has received a total of more than R725,000 in donations, which have been used to support a number of important projects and initiatives – focusing on the most vulnerable communities in society. To learn more about the work of the Nelson Mandela University Convergence Fund and possibly contribute, please visit their website:

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777