We are all, wherever we are, deeply saddened and profoundly pained at the passing of a great world historical figure, Nelson Mandela – a person 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.
As it happened, 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. Indeed, it ought to be recalled that Canada also considered Mandela a terrorist at the time.
As it happened, Mandela was a “banned person” – and the mere mention of his name was a punishable offence in South Africa. Perhaps this accounted for the historic size of the multiracial crowd gathered for my talk and, not surprisingly, 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. I was also hosted by Jules Browde, the President then of Lawyers Against Apartheid, and his wife Selma, the head of Black Sash – the women’s anti-apartheid group, and both also inspired me to take up Mandela’s case.
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. Some of these groups were reluctant to reference Mandela lest his supposed associations with terrorism tarnish the cause, but I was involved specifically in my capacity as Mandela’s lawyer, and I believed then, as now, that his personal struggle was inextricable from the struggle against apartheid and the broader fight against racism and inequality.
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.
Nelson Mandela not only embodied the struggle for human rights and human dignity in our time, but also the over-riding importance of education as a precondition for a culture of peace - for tolerance, for healing, and for reconciliation. 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.
Recently, 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, inspired in part by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In addition to reuniting with anti-apartheid activists and fellow members of Mandela’s legal team – including George Bizos and Arthur Chaskalson at a dinner at the home of the Browde’s – I sought out Pik Botha and had another long conversation with him.
In the years since we last spoke, Botha told me, he had become the first South African cabinet minister to call for Mandela’s release, he had become a member of the ANC, and he had served in Mandela’s government from 1994 to 1996. Indeed, Mandela’s greatest legacy may be his power to convert adversaries – be they prison wardens or government ministers – into allies, building coalitions between diverse – even antagonistic – peoples, races, and identities. He represents not the settling of scores, but the building of bridges.
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.
Mandela – as I learned from those who knew him best – was a person without rancor, without revenge, without anger, without malice – a person, of resilience, of determination, of commitment – and most of all, an inspirational person – a metaphor for hope, particularly for the young.
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 serve always as an inspiration for us all, wherever we are – and may that memory serve always as a blessing.
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.