It was 23 years ago, but I recall the emotional power of my first conversation with Nelson Mandela, as if it were yesterday. He had been released from prison the day before. His soft, lilting voice was clear and firm: He was generous in his thanks for all Canada had done to fight apartheid and secure his freedom. And he said that, in recognition of Canada’s role, he would like to ensure that our Parliament was the first he addressed. It was the beginning of a very important new relationship for Canada and an important friendship for me.
It was an honour to have witnessed through Mr. Mandela and to hear directly from him the painful details of his struggle – first to win the support of all South Africans, then to steer his country from decades of racial hatred to a beacon of tolerance in Africa. He was one of those iconic political leaders; one shudders to think how much harder and bloodier his country’s journey to independence would have been without him.
One need only look to Zimbabwe to see what might have been South Africa’s future without the courageous visionary leadership that Mr. Mandela bestowed. That he burst from decades of enforced silence and isolation in the cells of Robben Island to leadership first of his party and then his country, with such confidence, magnanimity and wisdom, make his achievement all the more breathtaking.
It is already hard to believe how much resistance there was to supporting Mr. Mandela and to demanding a complete end to apartheid before sanctions were lifted. Among the toughest international challenges of my career was persuading some allies to back Canada’s position on this issue.
Until recently, Mila and I still visited him annually and he expressed his pride in his people, and sometimes his sorrow at the pace of change in his country – and his frustration with the infirmities of age. Yet, he retained that powerful vision of the right path and the same singular conviction and confidence that allowed him to leap from prison onto the world stage as one of the greatest statesmen of the past 100 years.
For me, as for thousands of Canadians, it was a moment of special pride to welcome Nelson Mandela to Canada just a few months after his release from prison. No one who witnessed his welcome of raucous cheers and applause from all sides of the House of Commons will ever forget June 18, 1990. Politicians are rarely so unanimously seized by the power of an occasion such as his speech to our Parliament.
It was one of the proudest moments of my life to escort him into that cheering chamber. He was extremely generous and grateful for the leadership Canada had played in the long struggle, beginning with prime minister John Diefenbaker’s important role in 1961.
At a time when it is conventional wisdom to dismiss politics as a grubby trade, and most politicians as shadows of the greats of another era, Mr. Mandela was a powerful symbol of what is possible today. We are all blessed that we have shared in the political wisdom and incredible personal courage his life represented. South Africa has a standard of leadership bequeathed by its great teacher that every nation would envy.
As we watch communities in Africa and the Middle East struggle to free themselves from decades of despotic leadership, let us hope that their next generation’s leaders are moved by the passion, the dignity and the grace of Nelson Mandela, one of this past century’s true immortals.
Brian Mulroney was prime minister of Canada from 1984 to 1993.
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