Though he had spent much of the year ill and in hospital, it still comes as something of a gut check that Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday at the age of 95. The man who became both the face and a symbol of the South African struggle against apartheid, would later become the driving force for peace and reconciliation, walking a very fine line between fulfilling the ambitions of the black population and not scaring off the white elites to create the new "Rainbow Nation" of South Africa.
There are a lot of people who can write more eloquently and more knowledgeably about Mandela, but I think we all can engage in Mandela's story, and his legacy. If there ever will be a post-racism age, then Mandela will be one of its founding fathers. His journey, from once saying that he and the African National Congress (ANC) "had no alternative to armed and violent resistance" in 1955, to his trial and imprisonment, and to 27 years later emerge from prison as a man preaching peace and reconciliation rather than revenge and payback, is a lesson for us all. How can you come from that kind of punishment and torment and not want vengeance? It's almost saintly, or inhuman in the best possible way. I doubt it was easy, in fact I'd bet $1 million dollars that he would have rather had F. W. de Klerk sent to his cell at Pollsmoor Prison than rebuild South Africa with de Klerk as his deputy, but it was, ultimately, the right thing, and really nothing is so hard to do as the right thing.
Mandela was named an honorary citizen of Canada, and Canada does play an important role in his story. There should be a tip of the hat to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who boldly stood up to where fellow world leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan wouldn't and called for the end of apartheid. Mulroney spoke on the issue not with tepid condemnation, but with full-throated outrage, and took the issue further by pushing for economic sanctions against South Africa. "That solidarity meant a lot to the prisoners, it meant a lot to the organizations that were involved in the liberation struggle," said Vern Harris, Mandela's chief archivist and head of memory programming at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. "I think there was a strong appreciation for that long before he ever visited Canada himself."
"Mandela turned out to be a delightful political ally and valued personal friend," Mulroney wrote in a piece for QMI. "He was kind, thoughtful, gracious and funny - with an intellect filled with mature brilliance and good judgment, and a backbone of absolute steel. [...] Without the prospect of his leadership, apartheid might have held on for decades longer."
Of course no one is perfect, and South Africa still has it's problems, but a post-apartheid world would have looked very different if not for Mandela's courage and wisdom. I would never say that apartheid would have continued without him, all tyranny falls under its own weight eventually, but if there had to be anyone, in this instance, who stood in the place where inequality and injustice once stood and worked to build something for the better, I'm glad it was Nelson Mandela. Sleep well, Madiba.