Remembering Mandela

By l'Hon. Irwin Cotler on December 10, 2013

We are all, wherever we are, deeply saddened and profoundly pained at the passing of a great historical figure, Nelson Mandela – who endured 27 years in a South African prison and emerged not only to preside over the dismantling of apartheid, but, in fact, to make possible, as President, the establishment of a democratic, multiracial, free South Africa.

Mandela was the embodiment of the three great struggles of the 20th century: the long march toward freedom - as he put it - the march for democracy, and the march for equality. In a word, he was the metaphor and message for the struggle for human rights and human dignity in our time.

In 1981, I traveled to South Africa as a guest of the anti-apartheid movement. Little did I know that I would be arrested on that trip and, as a result, confront apartheid first-hand. I was engaged at the time in the struggle for human rights in the Soviet Union, defending imprisoned leaders like Anatoly Sharansky. At the invitation of the South African Union of Jewish Students, I spoke at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on the topic of “If Sharansky, Why Not Mandela?” 

For the South African government, Sharansky was seen as a hero in the fight against the communist Soviet Union; whereas Mandela was seen as a communist – and terrorist – to be fought against.  Mandela was a “banned person” – and the mere mention of his name was a punishable offence in South Africa. Not surprisingly then, I was arrested not long after delivering my speech.

While detained, I was summoned to a meeting with Pik Botha, the South African Minister of Foreign Affairs. As it turned out, Botha had a picture of Sharansky on his office wall, and he said that he had summoned me because he could not understand how I could represent Sharansky yet also speak on Mandela‘s behalf.

I answered that both Sharansky and Mandela were struggling for the same thing: freedom. The Soviet Union, I agreed, was a major violator of human rights, but – and I forewarned him that he wouldn’t like me saying this – South Africa was the only post-World War II country that had institutionalized racism as a matter of law. Apartheid, I argued, was not only a racist philosophy, but a racist legal regime, and I would fight against it wherever I was, for so long as it would be necessary. 

Unimpressed by my arguments, Botha 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, one where black and white citizens were separate but equal. However, because of the esteem in which he held Sharansky, he did not expel me but encouraged me to tour the country and see the true nature of apartheid for myself.

I met with Botha again at the end of my trip. When asked for my impressions, I agreed that the country was indeed a plural democracy – if you were white. But if you were black, I said, it was even worse than I had thought. 

Accordingly, when I was asked by Mandela’s senior counsel at the time – Issie Meisels – as well as his other lawyers, George Bizos and Arthur Chaskalson – later named President of the Constitutional Court by Mandela – to be Mandela’s counsel in Canada, and to advocate for him as I had been doing for Sharansky, I was pleased to accept. 

Upon my return to Canada, I intensified my anti-apartheid advocacy, including participating in the public launch of a major anti-apartheid initiative involving the Canadian Council of Churches, the Canadian Labor Congress, the World Federalists of Canada, and Amnesty International, among others. 

In 2001, I spoke in the House of Commons in support of a motion to confer honorary citizenship on Nelson Mandela – the second person, after Raoul Wallenberg, to be accorded this honor. As I said then, the three great struggles of the 20th century – for freedom, equality, and democracy – were symbolized and anchored in Mandela’s personal struggle in South Africa. 

Mandela was a role model for nation building wherever we are. He was the one who inspired the notion of establishing a rainbow coalition, of taking diverse peoples, even antagonistic peoples, and welding them into a united rainbow coalition for nation building.

Nelson Mandela not only embodied the struggle for human rights and human dignity in our time, but his emergence after 27 years in prison – not only to preside over the dismantling of apartheid, but to build and govern a renewed and unified nation – will be an enduring source of inspiration and hope not only for South Africans, but for all of us the world over. 

Irwin Cotler served as part of Nelson Mandela’s international defense team


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