Canadian emissaries witness history
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa—A teeming, colourful sea of mourners danced and sang under a cold, exhilarating South African downpour today as tens of thousands of people, including political leaders from around the world, gathered to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela.
A powerful coalition of politically-diverse emissaries from across Canada was on hand for the four-hour ceremony, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and four of his predecessors—Jean Chrétien, Kim Campbell, Brian Mulroney, and Joe Clark.
“Obama in great form,” Campbell enthused on Twitter. “We are cold, wet but still exhilarated!”
Alberta Premier Alison Redford, who also was part of the delegation, worked for Mandela in the early 1990s, when South Africa was in transition out of apartheid and developing a new constitution.
“He was a very tough taskmaster,” Redford said as she reflected on her time with Mandela.
“He always had a sense of humour and I think that’s what kept him on track.”
The soaking rain may have dampened attendance—thousands of seats remained unoccupied throughout the morning—but it could not beat down the exuberance as South Africans blended tears with joy in a celebration of the life of a man they see as the father of their country.
“In our culture the rain is a blessing,” said Harry Tshabalala, a driver for the justice ministry. “Only great, great people are memorialized with it.
“Rain is life,” he added. “This is perfect weather for us on this occasion.”
Thousands cheered, sang, danced, and blew ear-splitting salutes on vuvuzelas—the plastic horns that were a deafening fixture of the 2010 World Cup, the tournament that also marked Mandela’s last public appearance in this stadium.
In a speech that received thunderous applause, Obama urged people to apply the lessons of Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison under a racist regime, embraced his enemies when he finally walked to freedom, and promoted forgiveness and reconciliation in South Africa.
“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf of peace,” said Obama, who like Mandela became the first black president of his country.
Obama said that when he was a student, Mandela “woke me up to my responsibilities—to others and to myself—and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.”
Before taking the stage, Obama raised eyebrows when he shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro—a simple gesture that stoked talk of a possible rapprochement between the leaders of two Cold War foes.
It initially appeared that only 11 members of the Canadian delegation would be allowed inside the stadium after a decision taken earlier by the South African protocol office.
The Prime Minister’s Office was told that Opposition leader Tom Mulcair, as well as Redford, three other premiers, and several MPs who made the 18-hour journey for the service, would not be allowed inside.
However, all of the Canadians were able to get in during the confusion that reigned at security checkpoints as thousands of people poured through.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, also were joined by former governors general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaelle Jean, Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo, and Gaston Barban, Canada’s high commissioner to South Africa.
They joined heads of state and government from around the world, as well as international celebrities and business leaders.