Robyn Benson, PSAC

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, July 18, 1918--December 5, 2013


His people called him Madiba: the name of his Xhosa clan. A rare honour, it means that he embodied the clan’s collective spirit. But Rolihlahla Mandela, given the name Nelson by a schoolteacher in the days when “Christian” names were mandatory, carried within him the spirit of the entire nation of South Africa.

Much larger than life—although his personal humility would likely have made him reject such a notion—Mandela was an anti-apartheid freedom fighter who spent 27 years in prison for his part in the struggle against an entrenched racist regime. Once reviled as a “terrorist,” he ended up as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate (1993), and the first President of a free South Africa (1994-1999).

Madiba’s links with organized labour were longstanding and deep. And there could be no doubt of his progressive vision on other fronts as well: South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the first country in Africa to do so, and the fifth in the world to legalize same-sex marriage.

Mandela was given honorary Canadian citizenship in 2001, over the objections of Calgary-West MP Rob Anders. Now the Prime Minister has joined other leaders in mourning his passing. Some rare individuals, reminding us by example of what it can mean to be human, erase, if only for too-brief periods, the differences among us.

What will establish Madiba’s giant stature in history was not only his prolonged fight for social justice and racial equality, but his determination, following the end of the apartheid regime, that there would be reconciliation, not revenge. Given the horrific nature of the South African apartheid state, it may be surprising to students of history that his moral leadership was able to prevail. But so it did: and he managed to steer a course for his country that continues to this day. There were no trials, even of the most brutal of apartheid’s enforcers: instead, his Truth and Reconciliation Commission) began the long, as-yet unfinished process of healing a country divided by race and violence. That Commission served as a model, in fact, for many other countries—including our own.

RIP, Madiba. You will be missed, even as we celebrate your achievements, your vision and your profound humanity.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on December 5, 2013 8:50 PM.

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