We mourn today the loss a truly great man, Nelson Mandela. He was the President of South Africa, and an honorary citizen of many countries, including Canada.
But above all, he was a fighter for freedom and equality. Born in a South Africa that could not recognize his rights as a black man, he joined the struggle for freedom in his youth, a struggle that would lead him to the leadership of the African National Congress and to a life sentence in jail at the age of 46. He would spend 27 years in prison, only being released as the South African government came to terms with the need for dramatic change.
I had the enormous honour of meeting Mr. Mandela on many occasions, both in Canada, and in South Africa. I first met him when he came in 1990, just out of jail, and last saw him when he received his honorary degree from Ryerson University and attended the re-dedication of Nelson Mandela Park Public School.
Each encounter was memorable, always marked by courtesy and good humour. It is said that his time in prison provided him with great discipline and dignity. It showed on every occasion.
For me, there were some especially memorable moments. At our first meeting I mentioned to him that we had a great mutual friend in Trevor Huddleston, who I came to know when he spoke at a Toronto teach-in in 1967. I was Bishop Huddleston’s student “minder,” and we spent several days together, and met up again in London when he became the Bishop of Stepney and I was a community worker in North London. He became the leader of the Anti-Apartheid movement worldwide. Mr. Huddleston was a friend and mentor to Mr. Mandela when they both lived in Sophiatown in the 1950’ s, which was described with passion in Mr. Huddleston’s famous memoir Naught for Your Comfort.
Mr. Mandela’s eyes lit up as he talked about “Father Trevor.” Some years passed before our next meeting. “Ah, Mr Rae, Father Trevor’s friend.”
He repeated those words when we met in South Africa at the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Rhodes Trust, where President Mandela gave a remarkable speech. He was, he said, speaking to the audience as “Cecil Rhodes’ successor,” as brilliant a gesture of inclusion as one could imagine.
He was, of course, a giant of our time. He was also a a wonderfully engaging man, warm, completely unpretentious, with a great sense of humour and deep sense of humanity. He taught us all important lessons about courage, love, and compassion. He emerged from his ordeal in prison with no bitterness. Most politicians become vindictive after a few minutes in opposition. He deserves the thanks of the world for what he did and stood for.
Almost thirty years ago, I had a conversation with Archbishop Ted Scott, who had just returned from a trip to South Africa, where he had met Mr. Mandela in prison. He kept saying that his release from jail, when it came, would change the world. I was sceptical, and asked how one man could possibly make a difference to a situation that seemed so ripe for violence. “When it happens, you will understand.” Like millions of others, I watched his release from jail, and the magical moments of his talks with President F.W. DeKlerk, his trips to Verwoerd’s widow and his jailer. I saw him stand on the balcony of South Africa House with Mr. Huddleston, and experienced his persuasive eloquence at Queen’s Park on his first visit 23 years ago.
He is now with the ages. Or, if you prefer, with the angels.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.