What's Your Story

A personal letter from Nelson Mandela to two Canadians who helped fight apartheid

What's the one object you'd submit to a collection of national treasures?

"You have won many friends not only for yourself, but also for Canada."

John and Alena Schram leaf through a book that has come to mean the world to them. The dedication has deep personal significance.

Imagine a museum filled with artifacts of deep significance to living Canadians — a collection that contains the strongest feelings, most personal histories and most vivid memories of our diverse population. As part of CBC's What's Your Story campaign, we're inviting Canadians to tell us about the one object they would submit to our collection of national treasures, and how it connects to their perspective on Canada. Email us at 2017@CBC.ca.

The first story in this series comes from retired diplomats Alena and John Schram of Amherst Island, Ont.



Few Canadians are aware of how Canada helped bring about the collapse of a morally repugnant system. They should be.

In 1988, my husband John and I were posted to the small team at the Canadian embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, with the following mandate:  to test the outer bounds of acceptable diplomatic activity in support of South Africans working to bring down apartheid.  

John was in charge of the embassy's political work and I ran the Dialogue Fund, a unique instrument devised by then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark.

While John and his colleagues attended every political trial, protest, and rally in those dark days, I delivered funding to anti-apartheid and human rights groups, and the alternative media. 

Alena Schram (right) poses with Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary General of the African National Congress in 1992. (Courtesy of Alena and John Schram)

Before the advent of smart phones and internet news streams, we helped draw the world's attention to the inequalities of the South African health care and transport systems; the suffering of political detainees; the gross injustice of political trials; and the often-murderous excesses of the security forces of the white South African government.

Did you know? The Constitution of South Africa, signed into law by Nelson Mandela, came into effect 20 years ago on 4 February 1997. The milestone came just two years after Mandela — who spent 27 years in prison for resisting apartheid — won the country's first democratic election. 

We worked to foster a spirit of understanding, especially among the youth, by bringing together members of all races — usually for the first time.

And later, when the evil pillars of apartheid had crumbled, we funded initiatives to further constitutional reform, women's and workers' rights, education, access to land and housing and a peaceful transition to black majority rule.

Now our memories of those days, and Canada's noble support for a just and multi-racial society, are represented by a very important gift that we received in 1992.

Much more than a memento

It was at the last of our farewell parties, as we reluctantly prepared to leave for Ottawa, that Gill Marcus — then the African National Congress's chief spokesperson — stepped forward with a gift:  a large and weighty coffee table book.  I looked at it warily, wondering how we'd manage to jam it into our bulging hand luggage.

"I'd like you to read the dedication aloud," she said, handing the book to John and me.

John nudged it into my hands and I began what I assumed was a farewell message crafted by some ANC member of staff assigned to the task. But something about the round, even, determined script and the cadence of the sentences made me slow down.  And as I got to the end, I burst into tears. 

The beautiful message and the signature beneath were Nelson Mandela's own.

Transcript: 

Dear John and Alena, 

During your stay in South Africa we have come to know and respect you as people who care about South Africa, about our trials and tribulations, our setbacks and victories. Through your warmth and understanding and positive contributions, you have won many friends not only for yourself, but also for Canada. You have touched our hearts, and will be sorely missed. Best of luck in your new posting. 

Signature
Nelson R. Mandela

1 August 1992.

The book now sits respectfully in our living room, unknown to all those many Canadians who actively participated in South Africa's fight for democracy, and for whom Mandela's message is really intended. 

Occasionally we bring it out for interested guests — generally those old enough to remember that odious system of "apart-ness".  Then we slip it back into its box for safekeeping. 

For us it has value beyond measure, and we hope it will remain a family treasure for generations yet unborn.

Our years in South Africa proved to us that saints and heroes can live alongside evil and expediency, even in the most sophisticated societies. But a brave band of men and women determined to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost, no matter how dim the prospect of success, can ultimately triumph.

For us it has value beyond measure, and we hope it will remain a family treasure for generations yet unborn.

Canada did the right thing.  Our national moral compass, predictably, pointed in the honourable direction, as has so often been the case.  

Let us hope we can continue to be a just and ethical nation in this increasingly confused and troubled world.

John Schram stands beside anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela. (Courtesy of Alena and John Schram)

Alena Schram has taught in international schools and written columns and articles for Canadian and overseas newspapers and magazines as well as for international NGOs and UN agencies. She is the author of The Opinionated Old Cow:  Ruminations from the Field.

After 36 fulfilling and exciting years in Canada's Foreign Service, John Schram retired to share his experience with students at Carleton. He also lectures at Queen's University, where he is a senior fellow with the Centre for International and Defence Policy.

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