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.

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