I immigrated to Canada from the United States in October 2005. I enjoyed getting my morning coffeeat Timothy's café in downtown Moncton. Timothy's had a whiteboard on which they posted the "question of the day"; the first ten people to answer the question correctly won a free coffee. I was usually pretty good at it, if the question was related to science, technology, or American history and if the question related to American geography. I often drank coffee for free.
One morning the question of the day was, "Who voted for the first time in his life in the election that brought him to power?" I didn't have a clue ... but what surprised me was that all the Canadians around me had the answer. "Oh, that's easy." Yeh? Who is it? "Well ... it's Nelson Mandela, right? It has to be."
I had heard the name, of course, but I could tell you nothing about the man ... I probably knew only that he was black African leader. Beyond that, I didn't know or care.
I discovered two things that day: Nelson Mandela is a hero to Canadians, in a way he will never be to Americans, and Canadians are far more interested in the world outside North America.
But those Canadians weren't recognizing Nelson Mandela because he was a prominent newsmaker; they were recognizing something that affected them profoundly nearly 15 years earlier; an act that meant far more in Canada than it did in the States. Indeed, the system of apartheid in South Africa was an affront to Canadians, a violation of their value system, in a way that Americans can't even understand, because it happened in Africa, to people of colour, and to a people who essentially were of little value to Americans.
But that day, I saw something in a group of Canadians who were total strangers to me, that I admired greatly. They were able to feel strongly, passionately, about someone and something that didn't affect them directly; but affected them nonetheless, because of the value system they held.
Mandela went to law school; he was the first democratically-elected black president in his nation's history; he was a man who had the respect of some of the world's most powerful leaders, as supporters and as friends. But it was none of these things that make Nelson Mandela great.
It was the display of an unassailable moral courage that made Mandela great. It was his indomitability. He could be imprisoned for life, tortured, even killed, but he could not be forced to abandon his principles.
There are two ways of looking at it. Many people have told me, over the years, "What good are your precious principles, Charles, if you're dead?" My answer to that: "Of what value is a life without principle, without honour? Of what value is a life lived without principle?"
Have you ever faced a situation where the easiest choice of all was to put your principles aside for a moment and to do what was most epedient? To take the path of least resistance? You found reason enough to justify that "temporary" abandonment of principle. Most of us have.
Nelson Mandela is great because he never did that.
Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)