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We have in our home four separate photos of my wife with Nelson Mandela, taken in South Africa and Canada, which we consider among our most precious possessions.

The photos are one of many links, direct or indirect, between our family and Mandela over many decades. My own go all the way back to 1964, the year he was handed his life sentence in the Rivonia Trial, since I arrived in southern Africa for the first time at the same moment. My destination, however, was immediately north, in old Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Rhodesia was a mini-South Africa, where the tiny ruling minority of white settlers believed deeply in their own superiority and the inherent, immutable inferiority of Africans.

It was easy enough from Rhodesia to follow events south of the border closely, and already Mandela was beginning to loom larger than life, even as he was disappearing from public view. We forget now, but really it was his arrest, trial and conviction that led to his emergence internationally as the symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle, replacing Albert Lutuli and Alan Paton in that role. Ten African National Congress leaders were tried together for acts of sabotage against the apartheid regime, but it was Mandela who transfixed not only South Africa but the world with his historic oration:

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Although he then vanished from public view for fully a quarter of a century – no one even knew what he looked like any longer – Mandela remained the enduring symbol of the struggle, one of the great causes of the second half of the 20th century, a cause in which, one way or another, our family was engaged.

This family tradition now carries on, to our surprise and delight, through our granddaughter, who has been assiduously following Mandela's repeated health emergencies over the past year. Rarely a day goes by when she fails to ask for an update. She knows this latest crisis is very serious and fears the worst. She doesn't at all understand those South Africans who are now saying it's time to let him go. All this 9-year-old very badly wants is for him to live.

She perfectly well grasps Mandela's singular significance. With little help from her grandparents she has learned – at school, from the media, from life – that he fought against segregation of the races, she knows it's right for people of all kinds to live together in peace and friendship, and above all she simply grasps that this is a very special person who tried to make the world a better place and that we will all be the poorer without him.

I'm sorry she wasn't yet around, on that magic day in 1990, when he walked from prison a free man for the first time in 27 years. Whatever we might have claimed about defeating apartheid, the truth is we never expected to see him alive again. So we watched his re-emergence into freedom and unselfconsciously wept. Granddaughter knows that adults weep in very special circumstances, but this would have been her first experience with the concept of weeping for joy.

And we surely would have taken her with us, a few days later, to the festivities on Toronto's Danforth Avenue. A small number of anti-apartheid activists had decided that there simply had to be a public celebration of Mandela's freedom. These were mostly ordinary Torontonians who had never lost hope, who had backed the cause even while key governments like Thatcher's in Britain and Reagan's in the U.S. were condemning Mandela and his ANC as nothing more than communist terrorists. While these governments unashamedly co-operated with the apartheid regime as it entered its final and most brutal phase, civil society in Canada maintained the faith and the pressure.

There were no paid ads, no social media to spread the word. Yet somehow the word spread, and on that historic Sunday night the Danforth was overflowing with thousands and thousands of citizens, black and white, our own rainbow nation, who turned out to celebrate and cheer and cry. They were teachers and church-goers, trade unionists and NGOs, African solidarity networks and black solidarity groups, progressive politicians and just ordinary decent Canadians. They had succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings. They had helped make history and now they were reveling in their achievement. Everyone on the street knew there'd never be another night like it again in their lifetime.

Or another leader like him. I suppose it's too much to hope there can ever be another Mandela. But could we not come just a little bit closer? Is there not one prepared to dedicate her or his life to the eternal struggle for social justice and equality? Is it too much to ask whether some, or even a few, or maybe just one, of today's leaders might not look at this man and wonder what could be learned from his singular life? Or maybe the truth is that, revere him as we do, we won't really know how much we have lost until we have to face the world without him.