OUR VIRTUAL EXPERT PANEL
Mandela was a model of personal grace and behaviour, and was an exemplar of seeking constructive rather than confrontational solutions. He showed how to reframe zero-sum problems as variable-sum.
Nelson Mandela became a personality to me when I was a member of the Trudeau Cabinet in the early 1980’s. Interestingly, it was as a result of the lobbying of the South African High Commission at that time seeking to obtain support for the policies of the Botha era and characterizing the African National Congress and Mandela as communist revolutionaries. The “cold war” was a cloak for many things.
Prime Minister Trudeau was disdainful of the South African position and the South African High Commissioner and staff were largely isolated from government relations through that time. Negative public attitudes were established in the Diefenbaker era and matured during the times of Prime Ministers Mulroney and Chretien.
Assessing Mandela through his presence at Parliamentary functions in Ottawa gave the impression of a far sighted leader who had the ability to communicate a vision of a democratic and constitutional South Africa. Obviously Canadians wished him well.
However the personal impact came with a visit to South Africa in the summer of 1993. Former Prime Minister Trudeau along with myself called on Mandela at the ANC offices in Johannesburg. I spent nearly two hours listening to their exchanges on world issues but mostly on the history of the ANC and the contemporary struggle with the de Klerk regime. Mandela asked Trudeau to tell Prime Minister de Klerk to call off the violence and he would do the same. Mandela asked Trudeau to convince de Klerk that he sought reconciliation and would oppose the forces in the ANC that sought a violent accounting. At a meeting with Prime Minister de Klerk that followed, Trudeau presented Mandela’s messages.
That encounter with Mandela impressed me greatly. He was a man of deep insight into the psychology of his nation and its peoples, and committed to reconciliation as the only way to raise the standard of living of the Black communities. He believed democracy was the best system for delivering on his ideal of equality for all. He was thankful to generations of Canadians for showing what a multicultural society could achieve.
I grew up and spent a major part of my adult life in the U.S., where the legacy of slavery and apartheid was (and remains) a constant presence. Until my twenties I lived in Cudahy, Wisconsin, a working- and lower-middle class suburb of Milwaukee that, according to reliable reports, had the children of exactly one black family in its large public high school, which drew from a population of 20,000. (I did not attend the high school, and never saw those children with my own eyes.) Young children who had rarely, if ever, encountered a black person would call each other "nigger" as a joking insult. (I did not join in the racist language. My parents would not have tolerated it.) Blacks did not stay away from Cudahy because it would have been dangerous or uncomfortable for them to live there; they stayed away because it was unthinkable for them to live there. Even in my, relatively speaking, enlightened family, whose breadwinner was in the residential real estate business, no one found the absence of blacks in Cudahy at all peculiar.
We do not have to ignore the remaining serious problems of race in the U.S. – highlighted by current brazen methods of suppressing minority voting in many states – to recognize that tremendous progress has been made.
Nelson Mandela's impact was immeasurable both in the sense that we cannot judge with any precision how much the American Civil Rights movement gained strength from the protests against apartheid in South Africa, and in the sense that this impact was nevertheless undoubtedly very great. If anyone initially did not "get" racial injustice with respect to the 20th Century U.S., they usually got it about South Africa. If anyone initially did not get the heroism and nobility of American civil rights leaders, they usually got it about Nelson Mandela. He helped everyone see.
Mandela's release from prison is one of my first political memories. I was 10 and remember exactly where I was as he walked out of prison. I knew this was an important event and an important person. I have followed him ever since and always been inspired by his commitment to reconciliation, justice, and love. It is because of his legacy that I am now able to live and contribute to South Africa's development.
I offer a memory that serves as a constant reminder that in the long arc of history, justice prevails.
In early 2002, the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who had been an anti-apartheid activist, created in Trafalgar Square a celebration of thanks and homage to Nelson Mandela, in the belief he would likely not long be able to travel to London. On one side of the Square is South Africa House. During the decades of apartheid darkness, the sidewalk outside the embassy had been the site of a constant vigil of silent protest. Many Canadian travelers stood there. The mayor announced that for the first time since World War II celebrations, the square would be closed to traffic for a 48 hour party and tribute.
A problem was that the South African High Commission (as it had again become) had few windows looking onto the square. However, Canada House, which was then our cultural and conference centre, has spectacular windows facing the square. Alan Kessel of our mission who had been born in South Africa had the idea of giving the South Africans Canada House for the weekend.
And we did. For two days, Canada House flew the flag of free South Africa. A vast banner across our roof told TV viewers across the globe that "Canada Loves South Africa."
The South African Foreign Minister hosted a gigantic party in their temporary home that brought together anti-apartheid activists and ANC militants from around the world. Many had not seen each other since back in the day of protest.
Madiba himself stayed over on the other side – there was a balcony from which he greeted thousands of celebrants. Moments spent with him are a treasured memory. But I remember vividly the tears of those who thought that such a day could never be. And I remember the pride of Canadians present. The South Africans accepted Alan's idea for reasons that went beyond our better windows; Canadians had been at their side throughout their long struggle. Prime Ministers and diplomats pursued a genuinely "made in Canada" policy, but a whole generation from Canadian civil society considered the South African cause one of their own. Though the fight and sacrifices of the ANC activists had been heroic, they seemed as proud to be partnered by Canadians that weekend as we were to be with them.
Today, I try as a member of international civil society to support the cause of democracy and human rights everywhere. Harsh events occur and democratic space often becomes compressed. But because of the South African struggle and Mandela's own courage I am never discouraged. That weekend reaffirms to me that Canada and Canadians will always have the obligation to be there on the side of inclusive justice, the side that ultimately everywhere will win.
I was privileged to be researching a book in South Africa during the TRC and the transition period in 1996. I didn’t meet Nelson Mandela (although I did meet Bishop Tutu), but it was clear that the positive, hopeful ambiance that was beginning to characterize black society then (and some in the white community as well) was the direct result of Mandela’s powerful influence and the fact that he, along with F.W. de Klerk, had won the Nobel Peace Prize just three years earlier. I was profoundly moved by what he represented in the lives of black South Africans, by the dignity he had bestowed through his remarkable courage and his conviction that an interracial “Rainbow Nation” was possible.
I was already focusing on minorities and majorities, on reconciliation and justice, in my own work. Visiting Mandela’s South Africa at that critical time, although it was not without problems, helped shape my own thinking.
Nelson Mandela was an inspiration for me from the time when I first learned about his imprisonment as a little boy in Poland. It was through his case that I learned about the morally repugnant realities of colonialism and apartheid, which led me to reflect more seriously on the societies I have lived in.
I am sad about Mandela's passing because it highlights just how unlikely it seems that someone with his views could be elected in one of today's democracies.
Justice, true equality, standing up for the poor and oppressed – none of these help to raise campaign funds in 2013, or get think-tank applause for "serious" candidates or get much mainstream media attention.
Mandela is the most significant public intellectual of my lifetime. His spiritual politics influenced the world. I was fortunate and humbled in his presence. I can recall each moment of my conversation with him in South Africa shortly after his release when he was supporting Winnie through her appeal.
Mandela embodied our dignity as Black peoples. Through every action, he made our history of racism present and our possibility to transcend the stigmata of race/racism, real. His words and actions transformed international governance as the leaders of the world saw a reflection of themselves as whole souled. For those moments, they were willing to see themselves through the eyes of this unique man, a Black man – a man they wished to emulate. He gave us all a gift of fellowship. We were all blessed.
His rest is so deserved yet our hearts are heavy. There was an intimacy to our connection – people from so many communities, including the Black/African diaspora, were directly touched by him. Ultimately, we can all choose to be a living legacy – to break cycles, to sacrifice individual retribution for the greater community and to always live in hope.