Friday, December 06, 2013

Neslon Mandela, 1918-2013

Yesterday afternoon, one of humanity's bright lights was extinguished.  Former anti-apartheid activist, former political prisoner, former President of South Africa and lifetime human rights icon, Nelson Mandela, passed away at the age of 95.

For many of you, the name Nelson Mandela is something from the history books; he had retired from the South African presidency before most students in this school were even born.  For teachers and other adults in this building, it is a name we grew up with; from his time in Robben Island prison in the 60s, 70s and 80s and the international calls for his release, to that historic release in 1990 and right up until his remarkable ascendency to the presidency of the country that had endured decades of apartheid, the unjust political system that rendered non-whites second class citizens.

From a very young age, when he founded the African National Congress' Youth League to fight against apartheid and racial injustice, Mandela committed himself to making South Africa a place racial equality and, in so doing, made the world a better place.  But that isn't why I believe he is a hero.

For his efforts to bring about profound social change in the name of racial justice in South Africa, he was charged with, tried for and convicted of treason in 1962 at the age of 44.  He then spent 27 years in a small prison cell, where harsh conditions took a toll on his health.  He never once wavered in his commitment to bring about change in South Africa.  But that isn't why I believe he is a hero.

After decades of universal calls for release, Nelson Mandela was finally freed at the age of 69.  A growing crescendo of international condemnation of apartheid eventually led to its legal dismantling in 1994.  Shortly thereafter, Mandela became South Africa's first true democratically elected president, an office he held until 1997.  But that isn't why Nelson Mandela is a hero.

Why then is Nelson Mandela a hero?  Why does he matter to us as Canadians and, indeed as citizens of the world?  In my view, Mandela is a hero because of two words he introduced to our vocabulary:  "truth" and "reconciliation".  No, he didn't invent the words himself, but he brought them to the forefront of a political discussion that is too often fraught with vengeance, payback, violence and division.  Mandela had every reason to seek reprisal against the regime that had oppressed millions of blacks and other non-whites in South Africa for decades.  He had every reason and right to seek compensation and to settle scores with those who imprisoned him for 27 years.  Mandela chose another route.  Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of the immediate post-apartheid era, Mandela brought people together.  Forgiveness, and not punishment, was the order of the day, for there were many unspeakable acts to atone for on both sides of the historical South African divide - acts caused ultimately by the evil of apartheid.  Nelson Mandela is a hero because, in shaping the bright future of his nation, he set an example for the world.

I remember a very powerful symbol of this national reconciliation, which came out of a seemingly small act.  At the 1995 Rugby World Cup - the first major international sporting event hosted by South Africa in the post-apartheid era, Mandela brought his country together by simply appearing in the pre-game ceremonies of the final match in the South Africa springboks national rugby jersey.  Rugby and the springbok logo had been seen as an icon of white South Africa - indeed rugby was to white South Africa what hockey is to this country.  Many believed the springbok identity was something that ought to have been abolished in the post-apartheid era.  Not so, said Mandela, who enthusiastically embraced the game and symbol of white South Africa in that very simple act.  The nation became one, that day.  And, by the way, South Africa won the game and the World Cup that year.

Today, the world is mourning the loss of a great man.  Although none of us can hope to match his contributions to all of humanity, let the life of Nelson Mandela serve as an example of how to live our lives and make our own communities kinder places that embrace diversity and equality, regardless of race, religion, colour, creed, age or sexual orientation.  Let Nelson Mandela's spirit of truth and reconciliation be paramount with all of our challenges and conflicts.

The national anthem of South Africa is a song called Nkosi Sikele Africa, which translates as God bless us, Africa.  It wasn't just for Africa that Nelson Mandela was a blessing, but for all of humanity.  Rest in peace, Madiba.

Friday, August 26, 2011

My Library Matters to Me

I submitted the following to an essay competition sponsored by the Toronto Public Library system.  I'm not eligible, as I'm not a Toronto resident, but it was fun to write.

My Library Matters to Me

Literacy is evolving.  I have the means to access almost any work of literature with the click of a mouse, a credit card number and an e-reader.  But now, more than ever, my library matters to me.

I became a parent in my late thirties.  I have two young sons who I feel often ill-equipped to raise at the best of times.  I confess I need help; at least some of Hillary Clinton's village.  Whether its excellent teachers, volunteer coaches and chipper camp counsellors, parenthood is not something to be undertaken alone, even in a stable couple.

Here is where my public library matters, in this case the Dundas Branch of the Hamilton Public Library system.  Often, it is the end destination of 2km walk, mostly downhill, into downtown Dundas.  Sometimes, that end destination is a bicycle-themed coffee shop on a side street.  But everyone knows that caffeine isn't good for kids.

The ghastly pharmaceutically-infused 1970s architecture of the Dundas branch makes me grateful that libraries are more about bricks and mortar.  Its what goes on the branch itself that matters to me and to my children.  Sure, there are books and occasionally I sign them out.  What isn't there can be easily ordered on-line and delivered to my local branch.

There is rarely a day that goes by that there isn't some form of children's programming at the library.  Be it the summer reading club, movie afternoons or a visit by the local greyhound rescue group, dogs and all, there is something to capture the imagination and passion of children.  There are even toys to play with for the younger ones.

Certainly, all of this available elsewhere that isn't supported by the public nickel.  The same Thomas the Train table is available at the local Chapter's store up on the mountain in the giant boxscape that has become Ancaster.  There's even books there, too.  However, the presence of Thomas and other nods to the cause of literacy and enlightenment are more linked to the greater goal of Heather Reisman's bottom line.  At the library, though they may be too young to resist the temptation of the toys in favour of a literary discovery, children begin to associate the fun of the library with the cause of ideas and literacy for their own sake.  It isn't a cheap marketing ploy.

Even those who advocate for the "streamlining" of our library systems would agree that literacy for its own sake is good.  History matters as much as do its opposites: fiction and imagination.  There are multiple ways of accessing it, but the library experience cannot be replaced, particularly not for children.  Do we abandon public playgrounds because of cheap Chinese plastic playground equipment in our own backyards?  Do we stop visiting and going out with friends because of social networking?  As much as any other public good, my library matters and I glad to part with my hard-earned property tax dollars in support of it.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sweet Ride to Red Hill, back home, then to Mohawk Sports Park and Back Home