There will be much praise and many accolades for one of the greatest, if not the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. I have only two stories to add. Steve Lewis, in the wonderful CBC broadcast this evening dedicated to Mandela, praised Brian Mulroney for his leadership at the Commonwealth in taking on Margaret Thatcher and leading the charge against apartheid. Canada held a special place in Mandela’s heart because of Brian Mulroney’s leadership.
I saw another aspect of Brian Mulroney’s commitment to human rights, the opposition to apartheid and the Canadian support for Nelson Mandela. The first time was at a dinner in Toronto only a few months after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison in 1990. I cannot remember why I had been invited, but it was an honour to attend. I was at the round table immediately to the right of Nelson Mandela sitting at the raised head table so I had the perfect profile view of our honored guest. Brian Mulroney introduced Nelson Mandela and announced that Canada was offering a gift to the ANC via Nelson Mandela of five million dollars to help the organization transform from a resistance organization to a full-fledged political party. Nelson stood to speak and thank Canada for its gift. But he began with what seemed like a dragged out shaggy dog story and it was not clear where he was going with his discussion of the state of the modern economic world until he said, “Given all that, I presume the gift is in American dollars.” The Canadian dollar was then worth, if I recall, about 85 cents to the $US. The wit, the sly way his joke was introduced, the perfect timing, brought the house down. I had never seen a stand-up comic do as well. Brian Mulroney, who could hardly contain his laughter, stood up and said: “OK, five million in American dollars.” The applause was deafening and very prolonged. With wit, warmth and a smile, but also with genuine gratitude, Mandela garnered an extra $750,000 to a million for his cause.
In the second instance, in my research on Rwanda when we studied the international failures to stop the genocide, we learned that Brian Mulroney was the only international leader of a government to twice, not just once, write President Habyarimana of Rwanda before the massive murders ever began in 1994 – after all, Mulroney left office in 1993. In his letters, he asked Habyarimana to look into the human rights violations and targeting of Tutsis in Rwanda.
We also learned that just before Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994, just after the genocide broke out in full force on 6 April 1994, there were no international journalists in Rwanda. There were 3500 in South Africa, many if not most expecting civil war and a blood bath when Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency. When South Africa appeared not to be heading towards civil war, the international journalists started heading home. Two of the 3500 decided to stop in Rwanda to check out the rumours of a blood bath taking place in Rwanda. Thus, by chance, the world began to hear about the genocide underway.
We could see one path that South Africa could have traveled. To a very large extent, Mandela made sure that South Africa took the path of reconciliation. Indirectly, he also brought the genocide to world attention even before he assumed the mantle of the presidency, but to little avail since the world community largely stood by as the massacres took place. There was not one leader anywhere close to his stature who stood up and said “Never Again!”
Like most tourists to South Africa, I visited Robbins Island, the prison where Mandela spent most of the 27 years he was incarcerated. I think of that prison and still find it hard to imagine how a man of his stature and accomplishments emerged from such an ordeal.
As everyone says, and they truly mean it, he will be sorely missed.