Austin: What impact has Nelson Mandela had on your life?

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December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela became a personality to me when I was a member of the Trudeau Cabinet in the early 1980’s. Interestingly, it was as a result of the lobbying of the South African High Commission at that time seeking to obtain support for the policies of the Botha era and characterizing the African National Congress and Mandela as communist revolutionaries. The “cold war” was a cloak for many things.

Prime Minister Trudeau was disdainful of the South African position and the South African High Commissioner and staff were largely isolated from government relations through that time. Negative public attitudes were established in the Diefenbaker era and matured during the times of Prime Ministers Mulroney and Chretien.

Assessing Mandela through his presence at Parliamentary functions in Ottawa gave the impression of a far sighted leader who had the ability to communicate a vision of a democratic and constitutional South Africa. Obviously Canadians wished him well.

However the personal impact came with a visit to South Africa in the summer of 1993. Former Prime Minister Trudeau along with myself called on Mandela at the ANC offices in Johannesburg. I spent nearly two hours listening to their exchanges on world issues but mostly on the history of the ANC and the contemporary struggle with the de Klerk regime. Mandela asked Trudeau to tell Prime Minister de Klerk to call off the violence and he would do the same. Mandela asked Trudeau to convince de Klerk that he sought reconciliation and would oppose the forces in the ANC that sought a violent accounting. At a meeting with Prime Minister de Klerk that followed, Trudeau presented Mandela’s messages.

That encounter with Mandela impressed me greatly. He was a man of deep insight into the psychology of his nation and its peoples, and committed to reconciliation as the only way to raise the standard of living of the Black communities. He believed democracy was the best system for delivering on his ideal of equality for all. He was thankful to generations of Canadians for showing what a multicultural society could achieve.