Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

How Mandela Made a Difference

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The tributes to Nelson Mandela will continue to pour in over the next few days, as dignitaries make their way to pay their final respects to the leader who did more to transform Africa than any other in recent memory. His life story is now becoming more familiar by the day, and the upcoming film about his life will only add to the remarkable achievements of the man called Madiba.

We in Canada have always had a special place in our hearts for Nelson Mandela.  The first country Mandela visited after his release from prison was Canada.  The prime minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, was the principal world leader pushing for sanctions against the white supremacist government of South Africa, which ultimately brought the downfall of apartheid.  Prime Minister Jean Chrétien later made Mandela a citizen of Canada.

When the tributes are done and world leaders have made sense of Mandela’s life and legacy, what will remain? Will there be primarily a focus on his achievements as a transformational and inspirational leader?  Or, will there be a larger lesson—one that will transcend the ages and inspire future generations? 

Without him, South Africa would not be where it is today—a multiracial democracy after years of apartheid and oppression. Yet a healthy and conscious Nelson Mandela would be the first to acknowledge that his work remains unfinished, and that the South Africa of today has not fulfilled the promise and the hopes of its visionary leader.

Still, we must remember Mandela more for the person he was and how he lived his life than for the concrete changes of post-apartheid South Africa.

Mandela is more than the eradication of apartheid and the creation of a multiracial democracy.  His courage to defend his beliefs at great risk, and the price he paid during his 27 years of brutal incarceration have been thoroughly documented.  His decision to serve only one term of office (1994-1999) sent the signal that democracy was more than the work of one man.  Finally, the forgiveness of his oppressors in order to build a surer road to the freedom of the entire nation remains his unique contribution to humanity.

Mandela’s life was one of engagement and action.  Once released from prison at the age of 75, he could have continued to preach his beliefs outside of political life, begin a well-deserved “old age” of reflection and vindication, and become the living symbol of a new South Africa. 

Instead, he decided to run for office, and as president became the catalyst, the facilitator and the instrument of real change.  While there were expressions of violence, the risk of civil war and a need to look at the injustices of the past, his governance had everything to do with the future—and how people of different races, cultures and hopes could share a common land, common bonds and a common destiny.

Mandela’s vision was one of inclusion and hope.  It was also one of reconciliation and civility in the conduct of political debate.  Above all, he believed in education: “Education is the most powerful weapon with which you can hope to change the world,” he said.  He also considered love to be the best antidote to racism: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Finally, he taught us how to live: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,” and “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” 

When he left politics, Mandela remained active in philanthropy, especially by fighting the scourge of AIDS in Africa (he actually lost his last son to AIDS).  By his example and his words, he truly made a difference in the lives of so many.  And that is how I choose to remember Madiba.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Madiba, Nelson Mandela, South Africa
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