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A Dream Realised: The Challenges and Triumphs of Building a Mandela Legacy

The authors of the book recount their journey of bringing the stories behind the building of one of the finest paediatric facilities on the African continent to the page.

The Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital was a project that seemed impossible when it was merely an idea. The seed took root when 10 people sat around a table discussing the state of paediatric care in South Africa – a discussion sparked by the death of a five-year-old boy. These people shared similar experiences that all pointed to the fact that devoted specialist care was needed for children.

And so began the remarkable story of a children’s hospital built in the name of one of the world’s greatest leaders.

Now, the stories behind the building of one of the finest paediatric facilities on the African continent can be told for the first time in a new book A Dream Realised: The Challenges and Triumphs of Building a Mandela Legacy that has just been released.

With a foreword by Justice Yvonne Mokgoro and an introduction by Mrs Graça Machel, the tales are personal, emotional and sometimes heartbreaking but ultimately they are all filled with passion and inspiration.

Authors Ulrike Hill and Zanele Chakela recount the trials and tribulations of their long journey to bring the stories to the page:


Tell us how it came about that you were asked to write this book?

Ulrike Hill: I was asked by Pat van der Merwe (manager at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust) if I would be interested in writing the story of the hospital. We were sitting in the hospital’s main family lounge with pictures on the wall representing children’s artwork and I was so moved and inspired that I did not hesitate and told her it would be a privilege to write the story. I got in touch with Zanele, whom I knew from my Creative Writing Honours course at Wits, and asked her if she wanted to be part of the writing team for this amazing story. She didn’t hesitate in saying yes!

What was the brief?

Zanele Chakela: We were told to bring the story of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital to life. From inception, through planning and execution, to receiving the first patient and beyond. To highlight the impact of this legacy and the impact of how a village can indeed raise a child and build a hospital to look after vulnerable children.

Did the idea for the content go through various iterations or did you know from the start what you wanted to cover?

ZC: We went through several workshops where we engaged with the executive team from the Trust and created a list of people to interview. Ulrike was brilliant at giving the story its opening concept. That provided fertile ground for us to create the storyline and to use it as a mould that held the story together throughout the process.

UH: Although we delivered according to the brief we were given; the first draft did not meet with the executive’s approval. We had not included the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in the original draft not realising the important role that the Fund played in the hospital. We also realised that writing someone else’s story is not an exact science and it is only when the first draft is presented that the story can then actually emerge. Somehow, Zanele and I managed to get the story moulded. The consultant team were amazing.

It sounds like a big undertaking. Where and how did you start?

UH: We started off with big moments in the hospital. This was unpacked at two workshops. We then compiled the story plan from this and created the first draft. Our focus at the time was on individual stories as told to us and key moments in the construction of the hospital. However, after the first draft, the Trust felt that because the hospital was a collaborative project we should focus on a more linear approach. This posed quite a challenge because fund-raising and various other storylines were threads running through the story. Somehow, it came together when we spent a few days with student consultants at a writer retreat to get the story right. Dineo, who managed the interview process helped with the important people in the story, Nonhle confirmed the hospital timeline and Zanele took us through the story points and drew the hospital project timeline and mapped the various story themes.

How long did it take from start to finish?

ZC: Approximately two years.

Part of your brief was to develop the skills of young students during the writing process.  Why was this important and how did you go about fulfilling this particular request?

ZC: The hospital felt that because the focus of the Fund as well as the Hospital Trust was about children, who better than the youth to provide input to the various projects and campaigns, such as the writing of the book. So Ulrike recruited three students from Wits University who were doing their Honours in Media Studies: Nonhle Skosana, Mokoena Moloto and Lihle Petro so that we could get their input and perspective on things.

Can you tell us some of the challenges you faced in putting the book together?

UH: The student consultants who were working with us were busy with their studies, so exam times and assignment dates meant they were not always available. And getting space in the diaries of some of the people we had to interview was also a challenge. The review process was also time-consuming as it was undertaken by various members of the Trust’s executive – busy people who had to find the time to not only review but also ensure that what we had written was accurate and would appeal to the reader. Sourcing photos and ensuring that we had permission was another challenge. Photos we had taken of paintings on the walls of the hospital were subject to copyright. The biggest copyright challenge was sourcing the person who owned the lyrics to the song Thula Baba. I didn’t realise the song was owned by anyone.

Did you have to edit yourself and the book to prevent it from becoming too long and too detailed?

UH:  As writers, we are aware of various pitfalls such as over-editing, over-writing, procrastinating, lack of confidence so we try to keep our stories tight. Although I have to admit, there were many scenes we had to take out because of the review process when storylines changed for some or other reason … enough for another book in fact!

ZC: Editing is a crucial process in writing any text. It provided an opportunity for us to tell the story better.

What is the book’s key message?

UH: Through collaboration and determination – and of course the Madiba inspiration – SA can show the world what it can achieve especially for its children.

ZC: As South Africans, when we are called upon to save our children, we will stop at nothing to ensure their futures. We are deeply invested in looking after our children; we can do all things when we work together; our future is in good and healthy hands.

Although it’s a book about a children’s hospital it is not depressing is it?

UH: The first chapter is a tear-jerker. It throws the reader into the reality of paediatric care and what happens when there is an emergency and a child requires specialised care. The five-year-old boy in chapter one could be anyone’s child. After this chapter, the story shows how courage and hard work can make things happen. It is about belief and confidence and is a story that could be written about any organisation wanting to make a difference in children’s lives. It’s definitely not depressing. I like to think it is inspirational and uplifting.

ZC: Apart from the first chapter, the book is quite cheerful and positive. It highlights the brilliance of how a community with a common goal can achieve wonders. From small donations to big donations, little dreams to big dreams, a few words to entire legacies, it is a deeply inspiring book. Much like the hospital itself, the book has an important yet happy story to tell.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

UH & ZC: Hope for the future. Pride, because working together we can make things happen. Awareness of the role that the hospital performs in paediatric care – many think it is an elitist institution for the wealthy. There are some interesting stories that will make people sit up and say ‘Well I never!’

Is there anything else you would like to add?

UH: The day I walked into the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital was a turning point in my life. It challenged me as a writer and as a person. I have met incredible people and heard wonderful stories. It made me see the potential of our country. I am grateful for being given the opportunity to not only write an inspirational story but to do so with an amazing group of people. I do not believe that the story would have emerged without my book team and that of the Trust.


A Dream Realised: The Challenges and Triumphs of Building a Mandela Legacy – as told to Ulrike Hill and Zanele Chakela – is now available from leading book stores, or you can order online from Loot, Takealot or Amazon (as an eBook) as well as via the NMCH website or from the NMCH gift shop.

To win one of five copies of A Dream Realised: The Challenges and Triumphs of Building a Mandela Legacy, personally signed by Mrs Graça Machel, visit https://www.nelsonmandelachildrenshospital.org/a-dream-realised/

For more information on the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital go to https://www.nelsonmandelachildrenshospital.org/