Nelson Mandela set the model for national reconciliation

This is an important week in the world, this week that is leading up to the funeral of Nelson Mandela, for it is in these days that many Canadians will appreciate the enormity of change in South Africa that revolved around this one individual who was clearly the right person in the right place at the right time.

Just as it seems so impossible now for the German government of the late 1930s and wartime 1940s to have had as a policy the elimination of their citizens of Jewish ancestry, so it was to most Canadians in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s difficult to comprehend the policy of apartheid where for so many years the ruling minority, white-backed government of the nation of South Africa denied its African citizens basic human rights and held its Indian citizens in a very second class position.

This came about very simply: the white colonial powers had the money and controlled the police and the military as well as the nation’s government, and did so right up to the release of Nelson Mandela from the prison where he’d spent over a quarter-century simply for vigorously defending the notion of civil rights for black Africans.

By that time, the then-white-dominated South African government had become a pariah among nations for the obvious reasons.

But think about it: Nelson Mandela was only released from prison in 1990, less than 25 years ago, and until that time these evil practices had been the law of the land in these modern times.

Things happened quickly when change began in South Africa: an enfranchised African population soon elected their own party, the African National Congress, to power and so Nelson Mandela went quickly from being a “lifer” in prison to being his country’s president.

Just at that time, the world was experiencing some incredibly anti-social, murderous, behaviour. Some nations in the world were re-defining themselves: the purging, similar to Hitler’s treatment of European jews, of the minority Muslim population in Bosnia in Eastern Europe was still going on then and was only ended thanks to international military intervention.

The same thing could easily have happened in South Africa as the black majority population tasted their freedom from official political oppression.

They could easily have lashed out at their former white oppressors and a black-white civil war would not have been a surprise at that time.

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of President Mandela was that he moved quickly to ensure that such a civil war was not the outcome of the end of apartheid.

Instead, he formulated a Truth and Reconciliation process that examined apartheid and gave victims the opportunity to be able to speak out about their painful experiences and be heard.

This was a brilliant tactic aimed at defusing potential civil strife while, at the same time, presenting everyone, black and white, with the notion of how these things had come to be and who was responsible.

Canada was a beneficiary of this same process. The public, transparent investigation of this country’s treatment of its First Nations citizen in decades past when many of their children were sent to “Indian Residential Schools” and away from their communities and families as a matter of public practice was initiated.

The process, recently concluded, that investigated how this practice could have taken place in Canada took not only it’s name—the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—but many of its methods from the investigation of apartheid in South Africa during the 1990s.

Mr. Mandela’s legacy in the fight for civil rights is an enormous one and it certainly impacts on Canada and Canadians through our own government’s establishment of our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address past social evils. If for no other reason, he must be remembered in this country for giving us this model.

Of course he will be remembered internationally for so much more; for giving a voice to an oppressed people to the extent that their oppressors very quickly realized the turning of the tide and backed way from apartheid as an official policy.

This would have happened eventually in any case as more and more countries were expressing their displeasure with this backwards policy by applying sanctions banning the import of South Africa products. We should be proud to say that Canada was one of those countries that applied sanctions in order to turn up the heat on the South African government on this particular file.

It worked and Mr. Mandela was the one person who was able to turn this deplorable policy into a meaningful object lesson for the entire world through his Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

His life will be a model for time to come.