A remarkable man, a remarkable legacy

Irwin Cotler on the lessons we must learn from Mandela

by Irwin Cotler

It is regrettably a rare occasion when members of Canada’s political parties join together in solidarity. As such, when I added my voice to those of Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, and Elizabeth May as the entire House of Commons paid tribute to Nelson Mandela in the hours after his death, it was yet another manifestation of Mandela’s great capacity to unite.

My involvement in Mandela’s case and cause began when I visited South Africa in 1981 as a guest of the anti-apartheid movement. I met with, among others, faculty and student organizations, leaders of the Black Sash women’s anti-apartheid group, and members of Mandela’s legal team, including Issie Meisels, his Senior Counsel, George Bizos, and Arthur Chaskelson, then his junior counsel. Chaskelson would go on to become president of South Africa’s first constitutional court.

At the time, I was also serving as counsel to imprisoned Soviet dissident Anatoly Sharansky, and the South African Union of Students asked me to speak at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on the topic of “If Sharansky, Why Not Mandela?” For the South African government, Sharansky was a hero in the fight against communism, whereas Mandela was a communist – and terrorist – to be fought against. In fact, Canada also considered Mandela a terrorist at the time.

I was arrested moments after I spoke, because the mere mention of Mandela’s name was a punishable offence in South Africa. While detained, I was summoned to a meeting with Pik Botha, the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs (not to be confused with Prime Minister P.W. Botha). Botha had a picture of Sharansky on his office wall, and he spent over three hours trying to convince me that the causes of Mandela and Sharansky were incompatible, and that South Africa was in fact a democratic pluralist society where black and white citizens were separate but equal. He was not impressed by my argument that both men were fighting for freedom, human rights, and human dignity, but because of the esteem in which he held Sharansky, he encouraged me to tour the country and see the true nature of apartheid for myself.

I did just that before meeting with Botha again at the end of my trip. When he asked for my impressions, I agreed that the country was indeed a plural democracy – but only for white South Africans. For black citizens, I told Botha it was worse than I had thought. South Africa was the only post-World War II country that had institutionalized racism as a matter of law, and I would oppose this racist regime from wherever I was for as long as it was necessary.

Accordingly, when I was asked by Mandela’s lawyers to be his Canadian counsel – and to advocate for him as I had been doing for Sharansky – I was pleased to accept.

Upon my return to Canada, I participated in the public launch of a major anti-apartheid initiative. Some of the Canadian organizations involved were reluctant to reference Mandela lest his supposed associations with terrorism tarnish the cause, but I believed then as now that his personal struggle was inextricably linked to the broader fight against racism and inequality.

Unexpectedly, the links between Mandela’s struggle and that of Sharansky continued as well. As counsel to both, I was asked by the South African government to help arrange a deal whereby it would release Mandela if the USSR would free Sharansky and his fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov. The Soviets declined, seeing in this a South African ploy to burnish their reputation. The South African government then sought to have me broker a new arrangement that would include the release of a Soviet general in South African custody. In the end, the general died in prison, and no agreement was reached.

In 2001, the House of Commons awarded Mandela honorary Canadian citizenship, and I was privileged to in join in the debate. As I said then, Nelson Mandela is the metaphor and message of the struggle for human rights and human dignity in our time. The three great struggles of the 20th century – for freedom, equality, and democracy – are symbolized and anchored in his personal struggle in South Africa. He represents tolerance, healing, reconciliation, and education as a precondition for a culture of peace, and his emergence after 27 years in prison – not only to dismantle an unjust regime but to build and govern a renewed and unified nation – is the ultimate expression of hope and antidote to cynicism.

Last year, I returned to South Africa at an important moment in the country’s history. It was both the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), and the 15th anniversary of the South African constitution, which drew for inspiration on Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In addition to reuniting with anti-apartheid activists and fellow members of Mandela’s legal team, I sought out Pik Botha and met with him again.

In the years since we last spoke, Botha had become the first South African cabinet minister to call for Mandela’s release, he served in Mandela’s government from 1994 to 1996, and he remains a member of the ANC. Indeed, Mandela’s greatest legacy may be his power to convert enemies into allies, building coalitions between diverse – even antagonistic – peoples, races, and identities, and giving expression to his vision of South Africa as a rainbow nation. He accomplished all this without rancour, anger or malice, but with a generosity of spirit and care that has inspired all in South Africa and beyond.

In the days since his passing, not only Canadian parliamentarians but people around the world have set aside their differences and united in recognition and celebration of this brilliant and beloved man. I join all those in South Africa and around the world who mourn the loss of Nelson Mandela, and who strive to learn the lessons of his remarkable life. May his memory continue to inspire us and be a blessing for us all.

Irwin Cotler is a Canadian Member of Parliament and former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. He served on Nelson Mandela’s international legal team.




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A remarkable man, a remarkable legacy

  1. I agree that Nelson Mandela was an admirable person and the fact that he succeeded to put an end to apartheid is remarkable. However I was twice in South Africa, once when he was President and once after he retired and I must say that South Africa remains a poor and violent country where the common people are suffering almost as much as during the apartheid. The shanty towns are still there near the cape. At the hotels they advise you not to go out after dark even if you are in the company of others. In Johannesburg the newspaper columns are full of articles of murders and rapes that happen every day. Today they have one of the most corrupt government on earth where black policemen were recently firing live bullets on goldmine strikers. So, the question is: in practical terms what did Nelson Mandela really achieve for his people?

    • Instead of state sanctioned inequality and thuggery, they now have street level inequality and thuggery. A major move forward I would say.

      • This comment was deleted.

        • Same as everywhere else.

    • Gosh he didn’t solve everything all by himself in just 4 years?

  2. I have a question Irwin old boy.

    Who paid you? Was it good old Mandella himself, or did the Canadian taxpayers get to write the cheque?

      • Something the CIA should be deeply ashamed of. You show only your profound ignorance if you think the ANC’s inclusion on the terrorist watch list (not Mandela by the way) was anything other than a disgrace.

        Think of it … in the USA, a nation that was born out of an uprising of violent freedom fighters against the ‘legitimate government’ of the British, cannot recognise the right of a black Africans to resist their oppressors by force? And believe me, the tyranny the American revolutionaries faced was a walk in the park compared with a Black South African’s. Black South Africans could not resist? At a time when those same black men were being forced into ghettos? When they were routinely arrested, beaten, abused, forbidden to live in most areas of their own homeland, harrassed, exclude from most jobs and professions except the most menial, excluded from the vote, segregated, categorised by racial origin …

        Hell yes – if I had lived in Africa in the 1980s, I hope to hell I would have been brave enough to join the ANC.

        • This comment was deleted.

          • The ANC had white members as early as 1982.

    • Probably the same people who paid Alison Redford when she worked for Mandela.

  3. What a sad loss. Its comforting to see him die of old age and not something more tragic. His legacy will surely live on for years to come.

    • His legacy is living on in South Africa now – if you have never been there you need to go.
      Be sure to travel in well armed groups

  4. I should know better than to read the comments, but the disgusting racism being displayed here is completely unacceptable. Within the space of about 4 comments Mandela is accused of being a terrorist, South Africa of being no better as a democracy today than it was under Apartheid, and the strong implication made that black men are rapists because of their race.

    This is the racist thinking that led to Apartheid in the first place: that black people cannot manage their own affairs, that without white rule they will descend into anarchy, that blacks are ‘savage’, ‘sex-obsessed’ animals roaming the streets in pursuit of white women.

    There are few countries in Sub Saharan Africa that are free from problems, but the apocalypse that was predicted by Apartheid’s apologists in the west never transpired. Neither did the predicted communist dictatorship. Thanks to Mandela, South Africa has emerged as a stable democracy – with serious problems, of course – but the problems of a maturing social democracy in the developing world, not the problems of a racist tyranny.

    To see evidence in these comments of such continued prejudice, racism and ignorance regarding South Africa’s road to freedom, in Canada of all places, is deeply disturbing.

    A poor man in South Africa in 2013 may be just as poor as he was in 1990, perhaps even poorer, but now he can vote. Now he is recognised as a full member of the human race. Now has rights and freedom of movement where before he could be treated like chattel, or forced into the ghettos of the townships. Now he is equal in the eyes of the law. Ask that man if he would like to trade all that freedom for a return to Apartheid?

    • Thank you for writing this. I never know if it’s worth contradicting ignorant comments, or whether it’s best just to ignore them, but I’m always glad when someone does respond and does it well.

      I also admire Mr. Cotler for his contributions to Mandela’s cause and on other human rights issues, and I think the Liberals were right to give him the spot they were offered in Canada’s delegation.

      Thanks to Mr. Cotler for sharing his experience in this article.

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