Dr. Hedy Fry: Nelson Mandela was a gentle, modest, warm, and great man for our times
Nelson Mandela's greatest gift to the world is to show that it is possible for humans to end centuries of hate, to reconcile, and deliver peace.
He touched my life as a young medical student and inspired me to engage in my first acts of protest and boycott, on campus. He awakened me to the power of political activism. It has informed my behaviour since; more so as a politician.
Before I met him I was moved by his life: his acceptance of suffering as part of the struggle for freedom. So on my first vist to South Africa, I was privileged to be given a tour of Robben Island and his cell, by a white union activist who was imprisoned with him for a time.
He told me of the daily humiliation and degradation to which Mr. Mandela was subjected, including having to empty the buckets of sewage from all the cells in his block. Yet it never broke his spirit.
When he became president of South Africa, he had the opportunity to be bitter, to punish, to seek retribution, to wreak revenge on those who had so denigrated his person and his people.
That he forgave his enemies and sought reconciliation is his gift to our world. In doing so he healed his country's wounds and prevented the bitter and violent cycle of conflict that patterns most human behaviour.
I will never forget meeting him for the first time, at a children's rally in Toronto's stadium in 1998. He was here on one of his many visits to Canada. As the minister responsible for the Canadian contribution to the UN convention, in Durban, to end racism, hate, xenophobia and all forms of discrimination, I had been working closely with my South African counterpart, Hon. Essop Pahad.
We both had a dream of a parallel UN youth pre-conference that would bring the world's youth together to build a more tolerant and peaceful next generation. Mr. Mandela agreed to attend and support the plan during his visit to Toronto.
I still get goose bumps when I recall that first meeting. There he was, the greatest man of our time, gentle, modest, warm, and eager to talk of our shared hope for a generation of youth, more committed to peaceful cooperation than war.
There was an aura around him, unseen but palpable, like the the sun bursting out on a grey day.
We met once after that and he never forgot me and the conversations we had. That so great a man could remember me, a miniscule blip on the radar of his life, was a measure of his humility and generosity of spirit.
When the Durban conference occurred in 2001, Madiba was ill and couldn't attend in person, but he wrote and sent me a note addressed "Dear Dr. Hedy" asking me to contact him after the conference to debrief him and to see where we go next, in that quest for human rights, equality, and peace.
I think he wrote to me, as representative of Canada, a nation, he admired and saw as his partner in his quest.
I remember stupidly asking him at our meeting how he could act with so little malice against a regime that had so brutally oppressed him and his people. He told me, in his gentle way, he felt even though that could give him some small sense of fleeting revenge, it would be an injustice to his people and his nation, because he would only begin another cycle of hate and violence.
He felt his nation and his people "black, white, and coloured", Afrikaaner and tribal Africans, deserved better: to live in peace, stabilty, and freedom from hate to have a chance to grow as a nation and show the world, by example, that it is possible to live in peaceful co-existence, after centuries of hate and oppression.
This was his legacy to a world that needs him now, more than ever.
Madiba, I shed tears at our loss and for the light that has gone out with your passing. Thank you.