South Africa has begun its period of national mourning -- singing and dancing in the streets -- for the man described as the country's greatest son. The world feels the loss and Canadians, too, are mourning the death of Nelson Mandela.
In a small but meaningful way, this nation was with him on his long walk to freedom.
Nelson Mandela was born with a mantle of great expectation. He was the son of a tribal chief in his native Transkei. Madiba, his clan name, means a gift from God. Born black in a deeply divided post-colonial society, he was a second-class citizen. Indoctrinated early to believe in the superiority of whites, he grew to live up to his Xhosa given name of Rolihlahla -- which roughly translates to troublemaker. In the 1940s, he joined the fight for racial equality and justice in Johannesburg, studied law and opened with Oliver Tambo the first black law office in that city. A man of formidable will and resolve, he set his sights on South Africa's apartheid policy, which denied blacks basic rights and liberties.
His roles in the African National Congress, a decision to fight oppression with violence and sabotage, resulted in 27 years of imprisonment breaking stones on Robben Island, where he made peace with the warders, some of whom became his biggest admirers.
It is the story of his imprisonment that embodies Mandela's fortitude and belief in the righteousness of the cause to free black South Africans from the townships, to free them to vote, to pursue their daily lives, careers and public office. Having rejected an offer of freedom from P.W. Botha if he would renounce violence, Mandela would not leave his cell until 1990, when then-president F.W. de Klerk agreed to scrap segregation laws and negotiate with the ANC for multiracial elections. Beaches, theatres, public toilets opened to blacks. Four years later, the once-banned ANC rode to electoral victory on the shoulders of a man whose name people were once forbidden to say. The prisoner was president.
The anti-apartheid movement was strong in Canada, backed by the support of its leaders. John Diefenbaker pushed to deny South African Commonwealth membership and Brian Mulroney championed economic sanctions, in defiance of Britain's Margaret Thatcher and America's Ronald Reagan. (Mandela was officially on the U.S. terrorist watch list until George W. Bush lifted it in 2008.) Immediately following his release, Mandela made visits to Canada, which contributed millions of dollars to repatriate exiled South Africans to their native land.
Canada has another less laudatory link to South Africa's history. Prior to the establishment of apartheid, South African legislators visited Canada to study its Indian Act and reserve system before writing the Bantustan Act that created black "homelands."
In a curious twist of history, it was Canada's patriated Constitution, particularly its embedded Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that in part became the model of South Africa's own liberal democratic constitution of 1996.
Refusing to seek vengeance or deny whites equal status and access to power, he delivered all citizens into a new South Africa based on racial harmony. While sympathetic to communist ideals espoused by the ANC's formative leaders, he rejected calls to nationalize industries because he recognized his country was better off with a free-market system, with the support of the established business class. This was appeasement to some, but Mandela was ever pragmatic. Avoiding violence and upheaval was a faster route to a developed, prosperous and peaceful nation.
Central to the mission for peace was his establishment of the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to free South Africans of the lingering grievances and wounds of a brutal past marked by hate and division. The model was a gift to the world and has been recreated by numerous countries, including Canada, now in the midst of confronting the legacy of its Indian residential school era, which inflicted grievous physical, psychological and cultural harm on generations of First Nations people.
Nelson Mandela served one term as president. His country struggles still with poverty and violence. The road ahead is no shorter now than when Madiba took power in 1994. South Africans have been given a map they can trust, guided by a moral compass of humanity and a belief in the basic goodness of its people. Similarly, Mandela's legacy can guide Canada on its own fraught journey to reconciliation.