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Nelson Mandela dies at 95

Nelson Mandela
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Nelson Mandela dies at 95

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An aboriginal leader from Canada’s north dismissed an ineffective political leader by saying, "Tall man, small shadow." Of Mandela, it might be said: "Tall man, shadow that will straddle the centuries."

December 5, 2013 will forever remain a sad day for humankind. The date marks the death of Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela went from prison to power, changing his native South Africa in a way few thought possible.

Born July 18, 1918 in a small South African village he fought tirelessly against apartheid – South Africa's policy of discrimination against non-white people. This struggle ended after Mandela's release from prison on February 11, 1990. In national elections four years later, Mandela voted for the first time and was elected the president of South Africa.

In the early 1940s, after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, Mandela traveled to Johannesburg to live with his mother, taking a job as a clerk at a law firm. He also joined the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was formed in 1912 with a goal of ending white domination in South Africa and creating a nation of many races.

Mandela formed an ANC Youth League. As he became more involved in the ANC, Mandela traveled across South Africa, sometimes in disguise, urging ordinary people to engage peacefully in protest.

He attended the Congress of the People in June, 1955, a session that adopted the Freedom Charter, a call for the end of racial oppression and discrimination. In response, the South African government arrested Mandela and 150 other members of the ANC for high treason. The trial dragged on for years and Mandela and 29 others were acquitted in March of 1961.

Mandela gradually accepted the necessity for violence in the battle against apartheid. That thinking accelerated, when on March 21, 1960, 69 anti-apartheid protestors were killed and another 180 wounded by police in the Sharpeville Massacre.

The ANC responded by endorsing "armed struggle." Mandela went underground, forming a group called The Spear of the Nation. He later escaped South Africa, taking his crusade to other African nations, Europe and the Middle East, where he built support for the ANC. He returned to South Africa in August of 1962, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 5 years in a prison on Robben Island, about 11 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town. While serving his sentence, Mandela was brought to trial for sabotage and was eventually jailed for a subsequent period.

By July of 1986, secret talks were underway between Mandela and the government of Prime Minister P.W. Botha, about Mandela's release and an end to the apartheid policy. Discussions continued under Botha's successor, F.W. de Klerk in 1989. In a dramatic speech to the South African parliament on February 2, 1990, de Klerk lifted the bans against the ANC. Mandela was released from prison in Paarl, north of Cape Town, nine days later. In August, the government and ANC signed the Pretoria Minute, in which both sides agreed to end their armed fight. In December of 1993, Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

As president, Mandela oversaw the creation of a new constitution. He improved the living standard for black South Africans and sought a peaceful resolution with whites. He also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, to investigate human rights violations committed during the apartheid years.

In retirement, Mandela lived in Johannesburg, making occasional appearances at concerts or rallies. He was revered by South Africans.

OPSEU has enjoyed a long and proud solidarity relationship with the struggle for freedom in South Africa. In the early 1980s, a resolution was approved at the OPSEU Convention committing the union to solidarity with the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). Included in the resolution was a provision to provide SACTU with a $5,000 annual donation “for as long as required.”

This was an historic act of solidarity ending only in when Nelson Mandela walked to freedom in 1990. That year (1990) OPSEU recognized Mandela with the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award for his struggle against the evils of apartheid.

Through this period OPSEU members in colleges, correctional facilities and other institutions took up the fight to rid the shelves of all South African canned fruits and other goods. Other unions refused to handle mail, telephone calls, etc. and dock workers stopped work on South African ships.  

On behalf of all OPSEU members President Warren (Smokey) Thomas stated, “We will all remember him as a leader with compassion, vision and wisdom. His principles are a shining example to many across the world. We are all a little poorer today with his death. OPSEU’s head office flags will come to half-mast tomorrow in recognition of this grave event.”

He added, “I remember the deep emotion I felt when I walked into Mandela's cell on Robben Island alongside veteran South African trade unionist, Archie Sibeko (Zola Zembe) in 2008. I felt immensely sad but so proud that our union had been in the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle throughout the 1980s and right up to the time that Mandela walked free.”  

These closing words, from a Toronto event attended by Nelson Mandela, thousands of school children, Premier Mike Harris and Prime Minister Jean Chretien, are worth noting.

An aboriginal leader from Canada’s north dismissed an ineffective political leader by saying, "Tall man, small shadow." Of Mandela, it might be said: "Tall man, shadow that will straddle the centuries."

OPSEU remains committed to the struggle against all manifestations of racism still present in the world today.