It was no mere coincidence that Nelson Mandela chose Canada to make his first public speech abroad after being released in February 1990 from 27 years in prison in South Africa. After years of activism headlined by a call to free Mandela, the anti-apartheid movement here found success eventually in pushing then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to take the bold step to impose trade sanctions on South Africa in 1986, an action that no other major jurisdiction was willing to take. Not England under Margaret Thatcher, not the United States under Ronald Reagan. Certainly not when the wealth of mining resources such as gold and diamonds coming out of South Africa was a major contributor to the economy of wealthy First World nations.
Ever the diplomat and a shrewd politician, Mandela made a point of thanking Canada in a manner that embraced the efforts of all the labour unions, liberation groups, churches, non-government organizations and other support organizations that comprised Canada’s anti-apartheid movement. And he did so without seeking to deprive Mulroney of any credit he allowed himself for the eventual outcome.
Such was the skill that Mandela had as a politician with his mind firmly focused on his goal of liberation for his people. If there was ever an individual willing to use any means necessary to achieve his aims it was this man and he did it with such grace and humility that a man who only five years ago was still on the United States’ terrorist list is now one of the most revered people of our time. The world has lost a truly remarkable human being.
The remarkable fact of Mandela’s life’s work was that he saw a way forward out of the brutal history of White colonialism and oppression of the native peoples of that region not through armed conflict and prolonged war but through reconciliation. It was not only a beautiful vision but most practical since the division he faced coming out of prison was not only between Whites and Blacks but also within his African National Congress as well.
Reconciliation therefore was meant as the way forward for one and all. It was a breathtakingly simple, yet astonishing concept to make peace among antagonistic factions. Simple, but not easy.
Understanding that the life of his people was more precious when preserved than expended through military conflict, he stuck to his strategy. He recognized that the minority White population, which held the majority of the country’s wealth, would have to join hands with the very people they had sought to exterminate or otherwise corral into townships on unproductive land, in order for the natives of South Africa to reclaim their homeland.
How he could have come to such a perspective has been the outstanding feature of this man who left this world having earned universal love and respect.
Mandela had been ailing for months and perhaps he remained with us this much longer because the love of his people refused to let him go. News of his death on Thursday at age 95 was met with mourning as well as celebration in South Africa. So, we could mourn Mandela, but what is more important is to take onto ourselves his remarkable resolve and his abundant grace in giving his life for the freedom of a nation. His noble spirit affected an entire world. He was recognized for his matchless determination with many honours.
Mandela was made an honorary Canadian, the first living person to ever be granted this honour. And his becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected president was an achievement as remarkable, perhaps even more so, as Barack Obama becoming the first Black president in the U.S.
There are people who come into the world and make the world a better place for being in it and leave us feeling poorer for their departure. Such was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, affectingly called ‘Madiba’.
He was said to have considered himself an ordinary man, “a humble servant”, but the force of spirit that was Mandela means to all of us that he was no ordinary man. He was called an activist. Those who feared him called him a terrorist. What he was most certainly was a revolutionary, because he fought a war against brutal and vicious racial discrimination in a way that no ordinary man could have envisioned, with love for his people, for justice and for peace.