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The lessons of decency

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  |  Posted: Saturday, Dec 07, 2013 06:00 am

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In every generation, there are but a handful of people who truly make a difference to the betterment of humanity. In the 20th century, exceptional individuals like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas Edison made remarkable contributions to improve the human condition.

But there is one man who will truly transcend time. He will be remembered for generations to come, for his is a selfless story of compassion, forgiveness, resilience and accomplishment. Nelson Mandela is perhaps the most exceptional human being to walk the planet in the 20th century.

Mandela achieved the pinnacle of human greatness, not because he strove to do so, but because he simply acted like a decent human being in the face of indecency, hatred, corruption and contempt. After languishing in the apartheid regime’s prison for 27 years, Mandela was released in 1990.

Instead of exacting revenge on those who put him there, Mandela forgave. In fact, he invited the lawyer who prosecuted him decades before, along with many of his white captors, to his presidential inauguration in 1994. Not only were they invited, they were his VIP guests. A decent man in the face of indecency.

The Mandela story has deep roots in Canada. He visited Canada just four months after he was freed from prison in 1990 to thank Canadians for their involvement in the struggle to overthrow apartheid. During the Brian Mulroney years of government, Canada broke from its American and British allies to denounce apartheid in South Africa. Canada imposed economic sanctions on the country, and it used its place on the world stage to condemn racial segregation. In 2001, Mandela became the first living person to be awarded honorary Canadian citizenship.

South Africa is not without its problems. But today, it is a functioning democracy that was born not out of a violent civil war, but out of the peaceful leadership of Mandela. How South Africa was shaped really was up to one man.

After spending a third of his life doing hard time, Mandela could have emerged from prison as a warring revolutionary. Instead, he preached tolerance and equality – all citizens had a place in Mandela’s South Africa.

Many will suggest Mandela be labelled a saint. Mandela himself would surely bristle at such a notion. In life, and now in death, he will always be a constant reminder that we are all human beings, and because of that, we are all capable of decency – an incredibly simple ideal but, ironically, one of the most difficult ideals to attain.

It is that ideal that brought change to South Africa. It is that ideal that defined Nelson Mandela.


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