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

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December 6, 2013

I offer a memory that serves as a constant reminder that in the long arc of history, justice prevails.

In early 2002, the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who had been an anti-apartheid activist, created in Trafalgar Square a celebration of thanks and homage to Nelson Mandela, in the belief he would likely not long be able to travel to London. On one side of the Square is South Africa House. During the decades of apartheid darkness, the sidewalk outside the embassy had been the site of a constant vigil of silent protest. Many Canadian travelers stood there. The mayor announced that for the first time since World War II celebrations, the square would be closed to traffic for a 48 hour party and tribute.

A problem was that the South African High Commission (as it had again become) had few windows looking onto the square. However, Canada House, which was then our cultural and conference centre, has spectacular windows facing the square. Alan Kessel of our mission who had been born in South Africa had the idea of giving the South Africans Canada House for the weekend.

And we did. For two days, Canada House flew the flag of free South Africa. A vast banner across our roof told TV viewers across the globe that "Canada Loves South Africa."

The South African Foreign Minister hosted a gigantic party in their temporary home that brought together anti-apartheid activists and ANC militants from around the world. Many had not seen each other since back in the day of protest.

Madiba himself stayed over on the other side – there was a balcony from which he greeted thousands of celebrants. Moments spent with him are a treasured memory. But I remember vividly the tears of those who thought that such a day could never be. And I remember the pride of Canadians present. The South Africans accepted Alan's idea for reasons that went beyond our better windows; Canadians had been at their side throughout their long struggle. Prime Ministers and diplomats pursued a genuinely "made in Canada" policy, but a whole generation from Canadian civil society considered the South African cause one of their own. Though the fight and sacrifices of the ANC activists had been heroic, they seemed as proud to be partnered by Canadians that weekend as we were to be with them.

Today, I try as a member of international civil society to support the cause of democracy and human rights everywhere. Harsh events occur and democratic space often becomes compressed. But because of the South African struggle and Mandela's own courage I am never discouraged. That weekend reaffirms to me that Canada and Canadians will always have the obligation to be there on the side of inclusive justice, the side that ultimately everywhere will win.