For 3 years during the 1980s, I worked for one of the agencies of the Canadian Council of Churches involved in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
It's a strange place to find an atheist, smack dab in the middle of activist nuns, radical priests and the social justice arms of the member churches, but it makes sense in the context of my political liberalism.
The work of the agency stretched around the world: mining issues in the Philippines, human rights in Chile, forestry in Brazil, Third World debt in general, and environmental matters here at home in Canada - but it was the work in Africa, specifically the independence of Namibia and the work to end apartheid in South Africa, that occupied the bulk of the group's attention. Using church stock portfolios and the power of minority shareholder resolutions, the individual churches and religious communities would challenge the Canadian companies that polluted the earth and were involved in human rights abuses across the globe.
You could say they were tilting at windmills; the resolutions never passed, few people read the circulars that are sent before annual shareholder meetings, if they see them at all. But I think it is safe to say that they did make a difference. In the ensuing years, both Canada and the United States have changed their regulations regarding minority shareholder resolutions and voting, giving more power to individuals to challenge corporations and how they do business.
The difference also came about in pushing issues into public view. Would the average Mr. or Ms. Shareholder have known that Placer Dome was polluting an island in the Philippines if it wasn't for the actions of a religious order? Probably not...
As a secretary in our organization, I spent most days typing minutes of meetings and reports for the members, along with letters to other groups around the world. More than anything, it was the visitors from other countries who made an impression on me: Sister Aida from the Philippines, a tribal chief from the Amazon River basin in Brazil, and countless people from South Africa.
Most of the South Africans were young, but many of them moved with the weight of years - they were political refugees, people who had been released from prison after enduring unspeakable atrocities and horrendous injuries at the hands of their oppressors. These young men and women were physically and psychically scarred, but their determination and spirit were unbroken despite being separated from their families and friends. I continue to hope that the little I did to help their cause honoured them.
Shortly after I moved on to a different life, came the announcement that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison.
On that Sunday morning, I was glued to the television for that moment. Tears streamed down my face as I watched him walk in to the sunshine with Winnie by his side. But the best was yet to come...
A few months later, Mandela visited Canada, his way of thanking us for being one of the leading lights in supporting his cause and imposing sanctions. It was announced that he would make a brief speech on the steps of the Ontario Legislature.
I joined the thousands of people on the lawn that hot evening in June. Many of them were people I had worked with; I lost count of the number of I hugged in hello. We stood together, holding hands in a long line, as Madiba spoke.
Do I remember his exact words? No. But the intervening years have shown us how eloquent he was and I distinctly remember his gratitude to Canada and Canadians.
My former co-workers and I parted then and it was several months before I saw them again, under sad circumstances. One young couple, co-workers, had escaped South Africa through Botswana after being released from prison. Joyce Dipale and her husband, Tiego Masinga (known as Rolla), had left their daughter behind with family and made their way to Canada.
Joyce and Rolla lived near me in downtown Toronto and invited me to to their home on several occasions to Sunday lunches with our friends and co-workers. They introduced me to African food, which I admit is not to my taste.
Due to the torture Joyce endured at the hands of her captors, and after being shot by South African agents while living in Botswana, she suffered a major stroke at a very young age. I visited her in the hospital, and found her surrounded by our mutual friends. For a while, I sat with her and held her hand while she "talked" with me; the stroke had affected her speech processes.
It was the last time, I saw my friends from that stage of my life. I moved on to other things and another city.
As the whole world knows, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, and he presented to the entire world an enduring image of grace, forgiveness, and leadership that so many are sorely in need of to this day.
Joyce and Rolla were able to return to South Africa and provided testimony to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.
This world is a better place for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived in it, but at this moment, with his passing, it is also a little smaller and colder.
To honour him, it's up to all of us to make his vision a reality - a world where equality is granted regardless of race, religion, and gender, a world without violence and poverty, a world of opportunity for all.
Humanity will miss you, Madiba.