You may have heard that a peace conference in South Africa had to be cancelled after the ANC government refused a visa for the Dalai Lama, making it impossible for him to attend. Noble Peace Prize laureates such as former Archbishop Desmond Tutu stood on principle with with their fellow laureate, unlike the ANC, and refused to attend the conference without him. A lesson, an example, for other countries in Africa, a stern warning from China. But also another lesson for me. 

I have learned so much from South Africans – about their country certainly, but also about  Canada and its Indian policies, its system of internal colonialism. So many of my own illusions and misguided hopes have been shredded by clear visioned, straight-talking South Africans who have helped me see true evil in all its ugliness. They ripped veils of self-delusion from my eyes. I can no longer look at the countries that I call home the same way anymore.

Why my interest or concern for the Dalai Lama, for South Africa, for Canada? Read this and perhaps you’ll understand.

South Africa had a choice. It could have been a shining light for human rights and democracy for all of Africa and even the world, but it seems to be heading down a different road these days, mere weeks before national elections. It seems to be heading for the “big man” form of governance like so many failures on the continent and away from the original intent of 1994.

Mandela’s dream of a “rainbow nation,” the example he set by stepping down after one term in office, his commitment to protecting and abiding by a constitution that put to shame those of many other countries, including Canada’s. It’s been only 15 years since those first elections that saw the old regime fall, and the new one with Mandela replace it. 

Only, the African National Congress wasn’t supposed to replace the old regime of the National Party. The explicit promise to South Africans, and the implied promise to millions of others around the world who worked to see that first truly democratic election day take place, was that the old regime would be dismantled. Nobody, except perhaps the most cynical of ANC insiders, wanted to see the old system that protected the elite, privileged few subverted and adapted to suit a new set of masters.

The vast majority of people across South Africa actually believed that a better, more equal and fair nation would emerge afterward. They spilled their own blood to topple the apartheid regime, and spilled their guts to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission afterward. They did so with the hope that their children could inherit a country that people like Mandela, and Tutu, and Mama Sarah could be proud of.

I worry now because I’m afraid that Canadians (at least some of their leaders) are not learning how to avoid past mistakes that resulted in massive violations of human rights, but are learning from South Africa’s example how to smother them with ever more efficiency.

On this end, consider Canada’s on-going refusal to recognize international covenants on Indigenous rights, its denial of humans rights of Indigenous peoples within Canada, and the refusal by Canadian governments’ to honour even its modern treaties, to say nothing of its historic ones. All the while, Canadian politicians travel the world bragging how it is improving the lives of Indigenous peoples, in effect lying to the world.

South Africa is still teaching me. Still reminding me to see through the illusions and lies. Sometimes, though, I wish it didn’t have to anymore.

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