A reflection on the remarkable life and legacy of Nelson Mandela


Irwin Cotler

The international community recently marked the hundredth anniversary of the birth of legendary South African leader Nelson Mandela — a hero of humanity — who endured 27 years in a South African prison and emerged not only to preside over the dismantling of apartheid but to become the first President of a free, democratic, non-racial South Africa.

The anti-apartheid struggle in general, and Nelson Mandela’s case and cause in particular, have had a transformative impact on my life, my family and my work. Indeed, my first visit to apartheid South Africa in early 1981 as a guest of the anti-apartheid movement became a defining moment in my life.

My Parliamentary host on this visit, and which led to a lifelong friendship, was the iconic anti-apartheid leader and head of the opposition in Parliament, Helen Suzman, who years later was to be amongst the first inducted, along with Nelson Mandela, into the Human Rights Walkway in Pierre-Elliot Trudeau Park in the riding of Mount-Royal, which I represented as a Member of Parliament at the time.

I also had occasion on this trip to be the guest speaker at the Annual Meeting of Lawyers for Human Rights, a leading anti-apartheid organization whose Chair at the time was Jules Browde — who went on to become the Commissioner of Public Integrity in South Africa — and whose wife, Selma Browde, was a leading member of the Black Sash Movement, the major women’s anti-apartheid group — both of whom were also to become lifelong friends.

My visit included, as well, addressing the Centre for Legal Resources in Johannesburg whose Founder-Director was Arthur Chaskalson, a member of Mandela’s legal team — who litigated some of the most important anti-apartheid cases in South African jurisprudence — and who would go on to become the first President of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Here too, a lifelong friendship was spawned with Chaskalson addressing the Closing Plenary of our “Nuremberg” Conference at McGill University in 1987.

I also met with George Bizos, a leading criminal defence lawyer and member of Mandela’s legal defence team — who I was later to meet up with often and who became the President of the Centre for Legal Resources. Interestingly enough, George Bizos writes in his autobiography, Odyssey to Freedom, of his gratitude to Cecilia Smulowitz who played such an important role in his early childhood education and who years later was on the top of his list of invitees on the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Netal. I was delighted to be able to tell George in one of our frequent encounters that my son-in-law was a Smulowitz which cemented an even greater bond between us as “comrades in the anti-apartheid struggle”.

I recall also important and moving meetings with Issy Maisels, a legendary South African lawyer and Jewish leader who headed up Nelson Mandela’s defence team and represented him in the historic trials during the 50s and 60s. Maisels, long before I met him, was a role model for me as a lawyer and leader whose legal talents and oratorical skills were legendary in the anti-apartheid struggle. My friendship with Maisels continued to find expression in my friendship also with his daughter over the years.

This transformative visit in 1981, also included an invitation to meet with the Dean, faculty and students at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg; with the Director of its Human Rights Centre, Professor John Dugard; and to deliver several lectures at the University during my stay.

As it happened, I was also engaged at the time in the struggle for human rights in the former Soviet Union, and acting as Counsel to imprisoned Soviet dissidents including Anatoly Sharansky. I was asked by the South African Union of Students to speak on the human rights struggle in the Soviet Union and the case and cause of Anatoly Sharansky. I responded that I would be pleased to speak but suggested that the topic be “If Sharansky, Why Not Mandela?” though I cautioned the students that, as Mandela was a banned person, I did not want to cause any difficulty for the students themselves. The students, courageously embraced the speech topic which, as it happened, was to lead to my arrest and the confronting of apartheid firsthand.

For the South African apartheid government, Sharanksy was a hero to them in the fight against communism, whereas Mandela was regarded by them as a communist — and a terrorist — to be imprisoned and silenced. In fact, Canada, the U.S., and most Western democracies also considered Mandela a terrorist at the time.

I was arrested shortly after completing my talk amidst what was one of the largest gatherings held at the University at the time because Mandela was a “banned” person, and the mere mention of his name was a punishable offence in South Africa.

While detained, I was summoned to a meeting with Pik Botha (not to be confused with Prime Minister P.W. Botha). Botha had a picture of Sharansky on his office wall, and he spent several hours trying to convince me that the causes of Mandela and Sharansky were utterly incompatible, that Mandela was a traitor while Sharansky was a freedom fighter, and that South Africa was in fact a democratic pluralist society where black and white citizens were separate but equal.

Botha was not impressed by my argument that both men were fighting for freedom, human rights, and human dignity — let alone by my critique of apartheid — but, as he put it, because of the esteem in which he held Sharansky, he would not return me to detention, nor expel me, but invited me to tour the country and see the true nature of “democratic pluralist South Africa” for myself.

I then spent the next ten days doing exactly that, before meeting with Botha again at the end of my trip. When he asked for my impressions I first agreed “that the country was indeed a plural democracy — if you were white. If you were black or coloured,” as I told Botha, “it was worse than I thought.” I repeated to him what I said in our initial conversation: “South Africa was the only post-World War II country that had institutionalized racism as matter of law. Apartheid was not only a racist philosophy, it was a racist legal regime and for as long as it was necessary, from wherever I was, in whatever way I could, I would oppose this racist apartheid government”.

Following my detention — and meeting with Pik Botha — I was asked to meet again with Issy Maisels and was invited by him to become Mandela’s Canadian Counsel. As Maisels put it, “we have an excellent legal defence team for Mandela here in South Africa. What we need is someone to advocate for Mandela outside of South Africa as you have been doing for Sharansky”. I was pleased to accept, and then drew up as a result of my involvement, with both Sharansky and Mandela, the Ten-Point Advocacy Model for the defence of political prisoners which I have essentially relied on to this day.

Upon my return to Canada, I intensified my involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle including participating in the public launch of a major anti-apartheid initiative, condemning the South African government “Pass Laws” and involving the Canadian Council of Churches, the Canadian Labour Congress, the World Federalists of Canada, and Amnesty International, among others. Some of these groups were reluctant to expressly reference the Mandela case and cause lest his supposed association with terrorism at the time inhibit the launch. But I was involved specifically in the launch in my capacity as Mandela’s lawyer, and I believed then, as now, that his personal struggle was inextricably bound up with the struggle against apartheid, and the larger struggle against racism and inequality. As Mandela had put in on more than one occasion, including in his work Long Walk to Freedom, and as frequently cited by the members in his legal defence team in South Africa, “no one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. 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 hear than its opposite”.

My involvement in the 1980s included also becoming a member of the Commission for Inquiry against the Crime of Apartheid, lobbying for sanctions against the South African apartheid government, spearheaded by the Mulroney government; advocating for Mandela’s case and cause in Parliament, campus and the diplomatic arena; advocating for Mandela to become an Honorary Canadian Citizen alongside Raoul Wallenberg; being engaged in the divestment movement in Universities re apartheid South Africa; and working on the development of a South African Constitution and Bill of Rights with people like John Harker in Canada and Supreme Court Justice Albie Sachs from South Africa, and which would draw upon the Canadian Charter of Rights and Canadian jurisprudence. Indeed, Justice Sachs was to go on and cite from Canadian jurisprudence in his decisions in South Africa while becoming a frequent visitor and lecturer on constitutionalism in Canada.

In 1990, I became one of many to welcome Nelson Mandela on his first trip to Canada and to listen to him address the Parliament of Canada, one of the first times that a not yet Head of State was given this honour. His words continue, close to thirty years later, to resonate in their appeal and their hope. “Given our bitter experience of oppression and repression, we are determined that our country should be a truly thoroughgoing democracy in which the rights of all its citizens will be inviolable and in which all will be equal before the law. Accordingly, in addition to a democratic constitution, there should be an entrenched and justiciable bill of rights, enforced by an independent judiciary”.

In 1998, I was present again when Mandela visited Canada and unveiled at our Human Rights Monument in Ottawa a plaque dedicated to John Humphrey, one of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a close colleague and friend of mine at McGill University; and had the privilege of listening to his second address to Canadian Parliament wherein he spoke of Canada and South Africa working together in common cause — as in the establishment of the International Criminal Court –where he shared his vision of an African Renaissance (which I was to invoke as Minister of Justice) and where he paid tribute to the Canadian people “that has made our aspirations their own, who have insisted that the rights which the world declares to be universal should also be the right of all South Africans”.

In 2001, the House of Commons awarded Mandela Honorary Canadian citizenship and I was privileged to speak at the time on Mandela’s historical contribution to Canada, Canadians and the international community.

The conferral of this honorary citizenship, as I said then, “will have enduring resonance and inspiration as Raoul Wallenberg has had in being our first Honorary Citizen”, (which will be demonstrated with the inauguration of the Nelson Mandela Lectureship of Human Rights in 2018 commemorating the hundredth year of Mandela’s birth). May I summarize now what I stated then — and which has since been illustrated — of the historic resonance and inspiration that the conferral of this honorary citizenship secured, including:

“First, Nelson Mandela is the metaphor and message of the struggle for human rights and human dignity in our time. If apartheid was the ultimate assault on human rights and human dignity, if South Africa was the first post-World War II, post-Nazi country to institutionalize racism as a matter of law and to seek to do so under the cover of being a western democracy, then Nelson Mandela’s struggle was the ultimate in the struggle for human rights and for human dignity and against racism and against bigotry”.

Second, as I put it then — and as it still remains — Nelson Mandela is the embodiment of the three great struggles of the 20th century — “the long march toward freedom, the struggle for equality, the struggle for democracy”.

Third, Nelson Mandela is a metaphor and message of what nation building is all about — of building a Rainbow Coalition — of taking diverse peoples, even antagonistic peoples, races and identities, and welding them into a rainbow coalition for nation building.

Fourth, Mandela is a metaphor for hope. As I said in the House at the time, of “how one person could endure 27 years in a South African prison and emerge not only to preside over the dismantling of apartheid but to become President of South Africa and to build that nation. I do not know of any other example in the 20th century that can serve as such a source of inspiration and hope, particularly for the young people of our time, those who are imbued with cynicism, those who believe that this kind of inspiration does not exist anymore.”

Fifth, Mandela was a passionate believer, as expressed in his Soweto speech, of “education as a linchpin for peace, of education as a precondition to a culture of peace and against a culture of contempt.”

Sixth, “he is a metaphor for tolerance, for healing, for reconciliation”.

Indeed, the Mandela case and cause was also an inspirational motif during my life as a Parliamentarian, which included invoking the Mandela humanitarian legacy in Parliamentary interventions and representations; using the Rainbow Coalition as an organizing motif in my riding, indeed, even referencing my riding as a Rainbow Coalition, and seeking to bring together the diverse peoples and groups in working together in common cause; returning to South Africa on a regular basis to continue to be inspired by Mandela’s life and legacy; witnessing two of my own children marrying children from anti-apartheid activists’ families from South Africa (with Mandela a household word for my grand-children); organizing an Annual Nelson Mandela Political Prisoner Day on the occasion of the annual commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to seek the release of political prisoners, some of them even characterized as “the Mandela of their countries”; using the South African Constitution — its Bill of Rights and jurisprudence — as a model for human rights advocacy in Canada; and lobbying in Canada, as surprising as it may seem, up to as late as 2014, for the removal of any vestiges of the African National Congress (ANC) as a listed terrorist group.

I also had made a historic visit to South Africa in 2012 being both the hundredth anniversary of the ANC and the fifteenth anniversary of the South African Constitution, as well as the thirtieth anniversary of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This provided an occasion for me to speak in South Africa of the intersecting character of Canadian and South African constitutionalism while being reunited once again with anti-apartheid activists and fellow members of Mandela’s legal team.

I also used the occasion of this visit at a historic moment in South African life and constitutionalism to seek out former Foreign Minister Pik Botha and renew my relationship with him at this defining moment.

As it happened, Pik Botha was now living in a senior citizen’s home and engaged me in a long conversation about what had transpired since my first encounter with him in South Africa in 1981. He said he had not forgotten that encounter with me as a “brash young man”, but felt I might not be aware of what had transpired in his life, and his own evolution, since our meeting. Botha proceeded to advise me that he had become the first South African cabinet minister to call for Mandela’s release; that he served in Mandela’s government itself from 1994 to 1996; and that he became and remains a member of the ANC. Indeed, this encounter demonstrated yet again that one of Mandela’s greatest legacies, as I stated in Parliament, was his power to “convert enemies into friends, to build coalitions between diverse — and even antagonistic — peoples, races and identities giving expression to his vision of South Africa as a Rainbow Nation. He accomplished all this without rancour, anger, or malice, but with a generosity of spirit and care that has inspired all in South Africa and beyond”.

Some twelve years following my speaking in Parliament in support of granting Honorary Citizenship to Nelson Mandela, I had occasion, once again, to address Parliament on December 5th, 2013 on the occasion of Mandela’s passing, where I said then, and had occasion to reaffirm thereafter, that “we are all, wherever we are, deeply saddened and profoundly pained at the passing of a great world historical figure”.

I intended to go to Nelson Mandela’s funeral as he had been so much a part of my life and that of my family that I very much wanted to be there. And so I was pleased when I got the invitation from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to join the Canadian delegation attending the funeral. I later found out that Justin Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party at the time, had relinquished his invitation to attend the funeral and had asked that I represent the Liberal Party as Mandela’s lawyer. Simply put, Justin had the opportunity as the leader of our party to have an international presence and resonance in South Africa in a way that I could never have had; the fact that he waived this opportunity — and that I did not even know he had done so — says something about his character and generosity of spirit. I was profoundly grateful then, and remain so today, and that visit with all its historical meaning also offered me the opportunity for a reunion, once more, with Mandela’s legal team and the anti-apartheid community.

Sadly, Arthur Chaskalson had passed by this time and it was also to be my last dinner hosted by Jules Browde, who has also since passed. It did however provide occasion for reminiscences and remembrance with Mandela being described as “a person without rancour, without any sense of revenge, without any anger at all, a person without any malice — a person, yes of resilience, yes, of determination, of commitment, but a person open to and therefore capable of welding together those diverse peoples into one nation”, something that I was to cite many times thereafter.

On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, may I recall my concluding words in Parliament on the occasion of his passing: “[Mandela] was most of all a metaphor for hope, particularly for the young […] may his memory serve always as an inspiration for all of us, wherever we are, and may that memory serve as a blessing for this House and everyone in this universe”.

Irwin Cotler is Canadian Counsel to Nelson Mandela, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and Founder and Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. He also is the International Counsel to internationally acclaimed multi-award winning anti militancy journalist and  editor of Blitz, Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.

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