The Soapbox: Mandela's life has ended; his lesson lives eternal

Justin
Justin Crann
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The world I came of age in was one without apartheid.

A statue of Nelson Mandela stands outside the South African Embassy in Washington, DC.

I was born in 1988 and Nelson Mandela would not win the South African presidency — the day most often regarded as the official end to apartheid policies in his nation — until 1994, but I do not consider my world one that was touched by the brand of segregation and blatant racism apartheid represented.

That doesn't mean I never saw discrimination in action.

I grew up in Toronto, where I spent the first 24 years of my life.

My parents were advocates of equality and fair-mindedness, and in spite of the fact I grew up in a largely Eastern European community, I lived in one of the most diverse cities in the world.

I was educated in a largely progressive public school system where racism and prejudice was discouraged, but not non-existent. 

My earliest instructors were open-minded champions of equality in their own right; my Grade 8 teacher, José Baldizon, spoke of Mandela as one of many heroes.

I mention all of this to give some idea of the world I grew up in, so far removed from the one that imprisoned Mandela and made his life the tale of great hardship — and triumph — it became.

It's a lesson in contrasts.

While Mandela was imprisoned for almost three decades for his political and moral beliefs, I was allowed to openly discuss and share mine.

While Mandela fought for his own rights and the rights of his fellows against a tyrannical regime that sought to oppress him, I saw no such oppression in my own life.

Mandela died on Thursday, and in the ensuing days, columnists with every publication have discussed  Mandela's greatness and his achievements in South Africa and around the world. That discussion is likely to continue for weeks to come.

I have little new to offer there, and most of what I do know, I learned in history courses. 

Rather than trying to pretend I'm an expert on the man and his life, I'll simply discuss the impact he has had on my own.

As a caucasian male born in a first world nation, I am told I occupy a position of privilege.

It's an assertion I didn't always believe, but when I liken my own experiences to those of men like Mandela, it becomes irrefutable.

The nation I've grown up in — Canada — is largely tolerant, diverse, multicultural and free.

But it isn't perfect.

Canada's history of abuse toward First Nations communities, its treatment of homosexuals and transgendered people, and its remnant oppression of women by professional, personal and sexual means are issues that all need addressing.

Those issues notwithstanding, there are far worse places for us to be. In that sense, we are in possession of good fortune that we have an obligation to share with those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

The world I came of age in is one without apartheid, but the lessons Mandela's example has imparted on me are valuable nonetheless.

Freedom, equality, forgiveness, thoughtfulness, and boundless optimism are values Mandela had that I aspire to one day possess.

He once wrote that "to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

I did not have to cast any chains aside; that task was done for me. That is my privilege.

But I hope to honour Mandela's memory by respecting and enhancing the freedom of my peers.

It's a noble goal, inspired by a noble man.

Rest in peace, Madiba. The world is lessened by your loss.

You can follow Justin Crann on Twitter or like him on Facebook.

Organizations: Beatles, First Nations

Geographic location: Toronto, Canada, South Africa

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