Remembering Nelson Mandela’s dignity and humanity

Nelson Mandela truly symbolized that one person really can make a difference.

We may never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. With his passing last week Mandela,  affectionately known by his Xhosa clan name Madiba, became a giant of the ages, a man whose struggles, vision, persistence, defiance, sacrifice, humanity and humility, personified the innate goodness that defines the very best of the human spirit.

A Xhosa born in 1918 to the Thembu royal family, he was the epitome of the freedom fighter, a man whose struggle to stamp out South Africa’s oppressive and cruel apartheid rule landed him a 27 year jail sentence, 18 years of which were spent in the notorious Robben Island prison.

I remember those years, largely because my brother had emigrated from England to Johannesburg in 1966 where he spent the next 30 years in business before retiring to Durban. But it came with a cost. Being a young white guy with a wife and daughter, he quickly learned to align with white society, barricade the house in Fort Knox style, sleep with a gun under his pillow, and associate with blacks only as servants.

Family arguments about the appalling policies of the apartheid government failed to budge his position. But in retrospect, he was protecting the safety and survival of his family. Speaking out against the system or associating with black Africans would lead to alienation, immediate loss of work, or quite likely far worse.

Then along came Mandela.

Controversial, charismatic, a man on a mission, Mandela went from prisoner to president in just four years. Immediately on his release from prison in 1990, he went on an international tour to meet world leaders and seek their support for an end to apartheid.

Canada had already stepped up to the plate even before Mandela’s release and stood tall on a principal, shoulders above other leading nations.

Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney openly opposed apartheid, introduced legal and economic sanctions against South Africa, and argued with the U.K. and the U.S. to follow suit. In 1993, the same year Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with South Africa’s President de Klerk for trailblazing a new democracy for the country, former PM Kim Campbell lifted the trade sanctions at Mandela’s request.

In 2006 former governor-general Michaelle Jean visited Robben Island and saw the tiny cell where Mandela was held. It gave her a profound sense of perspective, his depth of sacrifice, and what he suffered. Yet it shaped him to become the compassionate humanitarian that is his hallmark.

As a lawyer, social activist, politician, and the country’s first black president, Mandela pursued his struggle for human justice and reconciliation. He never let go of that vision for equality and justice.

Mandela’s life’s work has come to an end but for South Africa it has just begun with the next generation. The nation is feeling a profound sense of loss yet the spirit of Mandela will thrive.

From the cruelty of apartheid Mandela brought dignity and liberty to South Africa. He wanted the best for his people. By the tens of thousands last Tuesday, all people – presidents and peasants, black and white – laughed and cried as they celebrated his life at a memorial service at the football stadium in Johannesburg. A mere few decades ago that would have been illegal. And that is so remarkable because, for many Africans, the real-time memories of apartheid still burn in their hearts and minds.

Mandela truly symbolized that one person really can make a difference.

“What matters in life is not the mere fact that we have lived,” he wrote. “It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

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