Nelson Mandela and the Triumph of the Impossible

In a rare moment of global solidarity, legions of current and past world leaders are departing for Soweto, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela will be remembered in a vibrant and colossal memorial service. Countless gatherings - mournful yet celebratory, vibrant yet reverent - are already setting the tone for the official memorial program.

The logistical nightmare presented by this elite pilgrimage to a fairly unstable region - not to mention the public's fascination with seeing memorable figures of the past (Mulroney! Carter!) gathered together - presents too easy a distraction from the life and legacy we are all commemorating.

I never knew apartheid South Africa, nor was I ever introduced to Nelson Mandela as a rebel, warrior, dissident, or even president. In my lifetime, I have come to understand him as a symbol for so many things - the power of one person to persevere, to withstand incomprehensible abuse, and to bring about change under terribly difficult political circumstances. As he put it so simply, "It always seems impossible until its done."

Let us remember Madiba - to use his clan name - not merely for his infamous and shocking 27 years in prison, but rather for his transformative leadership that made possible the creation of a democratic, diverse, and free South Africa.

There is a great deal of which I am proud as a Jew and as a Canadian, given the enduring connection between those communities and Mandela's legacy. As a Canadian, I take great pride in the work of fellow citizens who contributed to Mandela's freedom and the end of apartheid - like Irwin Cotler, Member of Parliament (for whom I interned), who served as international legal counsel to Mandela, and Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who as a young lawyer assisted South Africa with building a strong, just judiciary. The country's Bill of Rights drew heavily upon the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Ms. Redford and Mr. Cotler are two Canadians whose work we know well, yet there are so many more whose idealism and initiative continue to impact the lives of all South Africans.

Jews in South Africa and around the world played an important role in the campaign to free Mandela. Most of the Jews of South Africa arrived from Eastern Europe fleeing pogroms and anti-Semitism. They profoundly understood what it meant to live under brutality and inequality, and they joined forces with Mandela in the (still ongoing) pursuit of a free and equal South Africa. Indeed, I was touched to see footage of an overflowing memorial service at a large Johannesburg synagogue, where Mandela was compared to Joseph, son of Jacob, for his ability "to put aside all the bitterness from those long years of imprisonment and rebuild this country, " as Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein put it.

Yet although I connect in a concrete way to Mandela's legacy through my Canadian and Jewish identities, I must say that the feelings of solidarity, mourning, and celebration with which I am grappling transcend all national lines. I connect to Mandela as a human and I wonder, as I imagine everyone does, whether I could have mustered the courage and strength of character to survive horrific treatment and emerge consumed not by anger, but by an incredible readiness to elevate a troubled nation to one governed by the principles of human dignity.

Inevitably, there will be those who use - or rather contort - Mandela's legacy to suit their own agendas. Such obfuscation is tragic because it prevents the international community from sufficiently acting upon Mandela's vision for a just, equitable society. No doubt our world leaders, during their time in South Africa, will confront the stark challenges facing the region. These include widening inequality, the scourge of HIV/AIDS, rampant crime and corruption, not to mention the very real threats to peace and security throughout the African continent. (Recall that French troops are currently attempting to quell chaos in the Central African Republic at the same time as they are withdrawing from Mali, which remains a hotbed for sectarian violence and the growth of Al Qaeda).

Nor can we forget the instability and humanitarian plight in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sudan. Yet Mandela's call to action extends beyond the borders of Africa. We must not turn our backs to forces of state-sanctioned racism and incitement to hatred wherever they linger. We must take advantage of all possible openings and opportunities to create a durable peace, and where such opportunities are elusive, they must be sought relentlessly.

With a staggering number of world leaders in Africa reflecting upon the life of an individual who transformed his country, continent, and world forever, now is the time for an honest, dignified, and multilateral dialogue on the international community's role in the pursuit of global justice, peace, and prosperity. Anything less would dishonor the great Madiba.

Irwin Cotler put it best when he addressed the Canadian House of Commons on December 5: "Mandela was the embodiment of the three great struggles of the 20th century: the long march toward freedom, as he put it, the march for democracy, and the march for equality. In a word, he was the metaphor and message for the struggle for human rights and human dignity in our time."

May his memory be a blessing.