At the request of one of Nelson Mandela’s lawyers in South Africa, human rights activist and Liberal member of Parliament Irwin Cotler was part of Mandela’s international legal team during his 27 years in prison.
But Cotler also got to meet Mandela twice, and in an interview with The CJN, remembered him last week for his indomitable spirit, great humility and complete absence of rancour or bitterness toward his jailers after he came out of prison.
Cotler met Mandela on a state visit to Canada by the South African president in 1998, and when Mandela became an honorary Canadian citizen in 2001.
“He embodied three great struggles,” Cotler said the morning after Mandela’s Dec. 5 death at age 95, “the march to freedom for black South Africans, the fight for democracy and the struggle for equality.
“He had a transformative impact to make, but there was no bitterness. He was a model for nation building.
“The most remarkable thing about him is that he emerged from prison, not only to preside over the dismantling of apartheid, but to become president.”
In Parliament, Cotler said: “We are all, wherever we are, deeply saddened and profoundly pained at the passing of a great world historical figure [who] made possible, as president, the establishment of a democratic, multi-racial, free South Africa.
“Nelson Mandela was really the metaphor and message for the struggle for human rights and human dignity in our time. If apartheid was the ultimate assault on human rights and human dignity, South Africa was the first post-World War II country to have institutionalized racism as a matter of law.
“We should not forget that apartheid was not just a racist philosophy, it was a legal racist regime, and it was Mandela who fought and gave full expression to that struggle for human rights and human dignity against this racist legal regime.”
Cotler recalled being arrested in 1981 in South Africa after speaking there at the invitation of South African anti-apartheid movement leader Helen Suzman.
“[South African politician] Pik Botha asked to meet me, and there was a picture of [Soviet prisoner of conscience] Natan Sharansky in his office.
“He thought Sharansky was a freedom fighter and a democrat and that Nelson Mandela was a communist and revolutionary, and asked me to go around the country to see how democratic South Africa really was.
“When I got back, I told him: ‘Sure, South Africa is democratic. But only if you’re white.’”
Even though Israel was one of the only countries to continue to do business with the apartheid regime despite international sanctions, Mandela recognized Israel’s right to exist and had “very warm” feelings for the Jewish People despite the fact that he could be critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, Cotler said.
Cotler also noted that Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, shows that Mandela read Menachem Begin’s memoir The Revolt, and it served as something of an inspiration. Mandela wrote: “ I was encouraged by the fact that the Israeli leader had led a guerrilla force in a country with neither mountains nor forest, a situation similar to our own.”
In 1999, asked why he had finally decided to visit Israel, Mandela replied, “To the many people who have questioned why I came, I say: Israel worked very closely with the apartheid regime. I say: I’ve made peace with many men who slaughtered our people like animals. Israel co-operated with the apartheid regime, but it did not participate in any atrocities.”
Cotler said Mandela’s greatest legacy will be his role in establishing a free, multi-racial South Africa.
When Mandela became an honorary Canadian citizen, Cotler said in the House of Commons: “This honorary citizenship will have a historic and inspiring resonance for Canadians, for good relations between Canada and South Africa, and for… our common humanity.”
Cotler left with the Canadian contingent to South Africa Sunday to attend memorial services for Mandela.