When anti-apartheid fighter Nelson Mandela was laid to rest on Dec. 15, South Africa’s revered first black president was accompanied by a symbol of leadership for many Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island: an eagle feather.
The feather journeyed from B.C. with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, who performed a Nuu-chah-nulth ceremony for Mandela in South Africa during a week of memorial events there. Atleo was part of a delegation that included Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Governor General David Johnston, Opposition leader Tom Mulcair, and three former prime ministers.
“I was extremely honored to be there,” Atleo told Windspeaker in a phone interview. “Late Nelson Mandela was a tribal chief, and our people certainly saw him as a champion of rights in his homeland, but also Indigenous rights around the world.
“He sacrificed much for the struggle and freedom of his people. It wasn’t only struggling against an oppressive regime, but doing so with grace and compassion.”
Atleo said he was instructed on the chant, feather burial and ceremony by an elder in his community, which would encourage Mandela – himself from a family of Xhosa tribe chiefs – to “continue his journey” knowing his leadership legacy would continue. Mandela, 95, died on Dec. 5.
Harper led the Canadian delegation to pay respects at Mandela’s massive stadium memorial service on Dec. 10, and in a statement praised the former political prisoner of 27 years as “one of the world’s most respected political and moral leaders” of history.
“Nelson Mandela was a model of humility, grace and forgiveness, who dedicated his life to the relentless pursuit of equality, justice and freedom for the people of South Africa,” Harper said in a Dec. 7 press release. “His legend and legacy will undoubtedly inspire people from all walks of life for generations to come.”
But the Prime Minister’s reverence raised some eyebrows in Canada, with Tyee columnist Murray Dobbin citing Harper’s 1989 involvement in the explicitly pro-apartheid Northern Foundation, a far-right organization Harper himself admitted two years later had “deteriorated into kind of quasi-fascist organization,” according to 1991 interview.
Likewise, others pointed to historic ties between apartheid and Canada’s Indian Act, including reports that white South African officials traveled here to study legislation and the country’s reserve system. Later, the Tories joined the global boycott of South African products, but some, like Calgary West Conservative MP Rob Anders, have maintained Mandela was a terrorist.
“I remember the days of the boycott,” said Kaaren Dannenmann, a NamekosipiiwAnishinaape educator and land defender. “I remember Canada was pretty self-righteous about it, but did people know the apartheid idea came from Canada?
“That’s something that has to be acknowledged in order for any reconciliation to take place.”
For University of Victoria Indigenous Governance professor Taiaiake Alfred, Mandela’s legacy is much more than the gentle, smiling statesman by which he is often remembered. Canada’s “whitewashing” of Mandela, Taiaiake said, ignores the South African leader’s involvement in forceful resistance to the government.
“He was a freedom fighter,” Alfred, author of Was·se: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom (2005), told Windspeaker. “He organized and pursued, with every means necessary, the liberation of his people. That included armed struggle.
“People look at him post-revolution as a statesman, and think that’s all he was, or imagine that by the power of a moral force, the South African apartheid regime capitulated. They forget that apartheid was defeated only by intense pressure both from inside – political, social and armed struggle – and also from support from outside, sanctions against the state.”
Atleo agreed that the full breadth of Mandela’s struggle against white supremacy must be acknowledged, but that it didn’t contradict his later reconciliation efforts.
“Absolutely, it started out with violent struggle,” Atleo said, “and in the end, it was won through an effort to reconcile differences and to lift everyone up, to overcome the fear of substantial structural change.”
The AFN leader said he learned about both the brutality of apartheid, and the massive ongoing challenges facing South Africa today, while studying in the country for his Master’s degree. Citing Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – named after South Africa’s – Atleo said both countries “still have a great distance to go” in overcoming inequality and achieving full freedom.
“He has left a solid and powerful legacy that the people he has left behind are now prepared to pick up, to continue that work,” he added.
Dannenmann said she’s most inspired by Mandela continuing the anti-apartheid fight after his release from 27 years behind bars.
“He had to have been incredibly strong personally to survive,” she said. “Definitely, his commitment to his people was more than any personal discomfort. I find inspiration from that.”
But while both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal leaders continue to honor Mandela, what can Indigenous peoples in Canada learn from the late Xhosa chief’s legacy? Granted, Indigenous South Africans comprised a majority of the population there, compared to roughly four per cent of the population of Canada.
But Alfred argues that First Nations have much to learn strategically from the movement that ultimately toppled apartheid.
“We don’t have community leaders advocating for the kind of approach that Mandela led the (African National Congress) with,” Alfred said. “What we really need is a struggle based on nationhood to defeat the Canadian state’s control and occupation of our territories, so that we can have the kind of peaceful co-existence that our ancestors agreed to in allowing the European settlement of this country, as partners in a relationship.
“To me, Nelson Mandela represents the necessity of sacrifice and the effectiveness of commitment to struggle ... It was a much more serious undertaking than simply trying to convince people that they were wrong. They had to be defeated and confronted in a serious way.”