Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela is dead but the struggle (for the spotlight) continues

Am I the only one who feels a little bit put out by the plane-load of Canadian 'leaders' flying down to Johannesburg to attend the wake for Nelson Mandela? Brian Mulroney... OK. Allison Redford... really? I mean there are many many many others who helped in an equal or more central way that you, Madame Premier. And the rest? What did Stephen Harper do to help end apartheid? Kim Campbell? This all looks like a sad photo-op to me. I can think of a much more creative and relevant list of people to be on that plane and it would include, along with Mr Mulroney, representatives from the following groups: (i) civil society organizations such as the Churches, university clubs, labour unions, and NGOs who fought so hard to change government policy, approaches and tactics regarding white minority rule in South Africa; (ii) the countless members of the Canadian civil service who quietly pressed for change irrespective of the official policy of the government of the day (hey! even some good friends from CIDA should be there); (iii) an incredibly vocal Canadian media who kept us all informed about the progress and setbacks along the road to liberation, not just in South Africa, but across the African continent; (iv) individual Canadian citizens who donated money, raised funds, wrote position papers and op-eds, hosted students and refugees from across the region and South Africa itself; (v) the African (not just South African) diaspora in Canada, including its Caribbean, Central and Latin American offshoots, who made sure the fires of liberation never went out; (vi) members of the Canadian political opposition who held the ruling party's feet to the fire at key moments when all looked to be lost; and (vii) representatives of municipal governments who were often first to take the lead in boycotts of South African goods long before central government got on board. I am sure there are a few other groups that I should be mentioning, but lest we forget, the struggle to end apartheid had no politicians in the frontline. It was fought first and foremost within South Africa by South Africans themselves; second, across Africa by South African exiles and their comrades in neighboring states, many of whom paid a very heavy toll; and third, by civil society groups, social movements and key government allies in the rest of the world. As with the climate change issue, heads of state and government save for a progressive few were late to the party, some arriving just in time to claim credit where little of it was in fact due. And let's not talk about the private sector's role here shall we.

One of the greatest things about Nelson Mandela is that he never put himself ahead of the movement. He was always at pains to speak of 'we' not 'me'. How unusual in the contemporary global context of 'I, me, mine'. I do not mean to discount any of those characteristics for which he is most revered. We are right to celebrate his life, his achievements, his character and legacy. But it is a bit embarrassing, and not a little ironic, to see all this jockeying for an invitation by a political class, the combined integrity of which, if it were sand, would not fill Mandela's left shoe.

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