Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela – Ordinary Guy.

"I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."

“I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
– The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

I have always hoped to be home in South Africa when Nelson Mandela passed away; to be a part of history, see and feel his impact one more time in the flesh. Instead I learned about it while passing through security at the Vancouver airport. I have now gotten a glimpse of his legacy in 4 countries in as many days. “Mandela was a great friend of the Kurds” I was told over lunch today in Iraq. It has been very interesting, but simply cannot compare to being home.

Mpho happy-horz

No but seriously, I married his doppleganger

I never met the man. I wish I had, but he seemed pretty busy.  I read his books, am in love with his country, share a passion for his people and married his doppelganger. He is also responsible for establishing the core conditions of my life –  without him I could not live where I live, know who I know and my family would be against the law. That’s a lot. Still, I owe him even more.

I first learned about Mandela from the Cosby Show when Elton and Sandra named their twin babies Nelson and Winnie. The adults in the room let out a knowing “ahhhhh” and I had to ask – who are they? As if being adorable squishy newborns on our favourite tv show wasn’t enough. Nelson was being released from jail after 27 years. For what? For no reason. But why? He was black.  I immediately felt concerned for Holly Ball, the only black person in our class. I got sent to sit in the hall for chewing gum; jail seemed like a really cruel punishment when she had done nothing wrong.


Tshepo and family returned to SA in 1994 after 10 years exiled in Canada.

This was followed shortly by news reports of death in South Africa.  The country was up in smoke and people were dying in numbers, but only black people.  Again, it struck me as particularly strange that South Africa had magic bullets that went around white people and only hit black. I think I even felt a sense of relief that – should I or any of my family fall out of the sky and land in South Africa, we would be safe.

I’m certain the adults trying to describe faraway news to a 10 year old never fully understood the affront to my sense of virtue; if they did, they probably thought it was cute and would fade as soon as I saw something shiny. But these things stuck to me – watching people celebrate the release of someone who should have never been jailed in the first place and learning that people sought to kill specific races became some of my earliest indicators that adults were not always righteous and the world not necessarily just.

The seed was planted for an insatiable curiosity about South Africa and, as it turns out, the journey of a lifetime. As a teen I voraciously read anything I could get my hands on. Bryce Courtney’s The Power of One became my Disney fairy tale, Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy turned me inside out and Steve Biko’s I write what I like soared over my head, but I read it anyways. I painted a picture in my head of a breathtakingly beautiful country, oozing with unsung heroes and a collective soul that sounded out like a drum.

Kornelia's parents could not marry in SA. Family was born in Lesotho after Dad fled there in objection to apartheid.

Kornelia’s parents could not marry in SA. Her and siblings were born in Lesotho. Dad fled there in objection to apartheid.

When I finally did see the Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian (they don’t meet there whatsoever, but let’s not focus on details) I sprinted full speed down the beach in to the waves with all my clothes on. The first time I met a street child, I had look away so he wouldn’t see my tears. I cried again when I encountered my first bold faced racist who called Mandela a terrorist and refused to shake my black friend’s hand. Yet again when I met a former Umkhonto we Sizwe general living homeless in a park. These moments live with me, as do the thousands of highly personal stories of injustice, inspiration, suffering, bravery, discrimination and more I have learned over my 7 years in the country. Not a day goes by that I don’t wrestle with the many layers of complexities in a nation where humanity’s toll is so raw.


Mama used to sit in anti-apartheid rallies. She was put in jail and whipped by police.

There were many things that have driven my sense of wonder about South Africa, but the cost of righteousness and the courage it takes to uphold it has struck me deepest. We talk at length about the 27 years Mandela spent in prison and commend him for emerging with a heart for peace.  But he walked into the Treason Trial prepared to die, knowing very well he might. Steve Biko was beaten to death in the back of a police truck, Robert Sobukwe died in prison, Chris Hani was assassinated, Hector Pieterson (age 13) was shot in the back by police. Well beyond these well known icons – countless teenagers left school to fight, parents lost children, fathers disappeared, thousands were buried nameless under rocks. All of them walked into it with eyes wide open.

I like to believe this principle has helped me become a better person. I have yet to give up much, anything I know about suffering is third hand and I have grown increasingly attached to life’s creature comforts. But learning about it opened my eyes to the world and my responsibilities within it, watching it lived out has awakened in me a deep yearning to share the same convictionm and coming of age in South Africa has allowed me to walk in the shadows of people – big and small – that call on me to do exactly that.

My girl on the cover of Forbes in a country where black girls were once miseducated in accordance to their opportunities in life.

Rapelang on the cover of Forbes in a country where black girls were once mis-educated in accordance to their opportunities in life.

South Africa has been everything I ever dreamed it could be and more. Like any great love story it is mired in hard work and harsh realities. Much like Mandela’s legend itself, the fairy tale ending we want does not do justice to the sacrifices it required – they didn’t call it the freedom struggle for nothing.  We say the years in prison were worth it, but a generation lost their fathers. We wish freedom was complete when apartheid was lifted, but when you break a society it is just that, broken.

Tata Mandela – thank you for standing for something and for standing so very tall. The choices you made and the sincerity with which you made them freed so many others to do the same. We are humbled by your service and will do our best to uphold a fraction of the same.

Lala Kakuhle, Tata.

Marrying a proud Pondo of the Qhinebe clan in the Transkei dressed in traditional Xhosa wear. Once illegal.

On love – Peter and Catherine

Peter and catherineNames: Catherine Louvet and Peter Hartley
Relation: Aunt and Uncle
Married: 28 years
Hometown: Montreal
Occupations:  Senior Group Consumer Marketing Director, Rogers Québec and Associate Publisher,L’actualité.
Head of Global Marketing – Alumina, Dow Chemicals.
Children: Camille (22), Lauren (19)

Getting older seems hard. For all the wisdom it fosters, age appears to have an inverse relationship with hope.  Time weathers. It injures. The more you have, the more likely you are to experience loss and suffering and the less you have to look forward to. My father once challenged me to find out why most liberals are young. It is still on my to-do list.

Hartley siblings in 2012

Hartley siblings in 2012

That is to say nothing of relationships. Not only do half of all marriages end, the other half don’t exactly inspire.  How many young people look at a married couple after 30 years and think “Wow, I can’t wait!”?  That cute old couple strolling through the park? He’s not really deaf, he just pretends so that she stops talking. It doesn’t even work.

Moreover, women appear to come out worse for the wear. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said we are like tea bags – you don’t know our strength until we are in hot water. That’s great if true, except that tea bags end up pretty haggard. As the next generation of wives and mothers, I spend a decent amount of time among friends plotting how to improve our prospects. I also make a point of latching on to great role models.

Peter and Camille

Camille graduating from McGill with a BCom

Lest I ever call them old – Peter is my father’s youngest brother, Catherine his amazing wife.

Their story is quintessential blue-eyed boy meets brown-eyed girl. Handsome star athlete and top student graduates Canadian University and goes to France to play professional hockey. He meets his teammate’s gorgeous, wholesome and intelligent little sister. They fall in love in a French meadow on a bicycle built for two. They picnic under the stars, drink wine and eat croissant but never get drunk or fat.


Lauren – actress extraordinaire

Thirty years later they wake up every morning and sip cappuccinos in their stylish kitchen while listening to Mozart and reading the newspapers – English and French. They have great careers, dress well and eat even better. In the winters they ski. Summers they golf, bike and swim.  They have a long list of great friends. They give back to the community and make great citizens. They have a quaint weekend home in the mountains and a rustic family cottage on the Muskokas. Catherine makes it home to France annually and they manage to take a fantastic family vacation each year. This year Argentina and Chile, last year Aspen, the one before Italy.

Their daughters, my cousins, are a double dose of exceptional. Camille is in her first year of law school. Lauren is spending a gap year traveling while applying to Theater School. Between them, they have covered all possible talents and all 5 continents.  They are stunning, warm and well-adjusted, yet each their own person.

PCCLTheir first daughter, Kristen Alexandra, was born with down syndrome. They accepted her and committed themselves to doing whatever she needed to thrive, including moving to Toronto to access better resources. At 9 months, she underwent heart surgery to correct a defect commonly found in down syndrome babies. She did not survive. They had to bury their first born child.

With my Khaya

With my Khaya

We met and loved Kristen when they visited in Vancouver, but I was far too young to fully understand the loss. Many years later, I asked Catherine whether it was harder to lose Kristen or her father, who was shot during a home robbery. I was taken aback by how decisively she replied – Kristen. Once you become parents, you stay that way; for a time, they were parents living without a child. I think I rationalized it to dull the impact; it was a long time ago and they went on to have 2 more beautiful daughters. I convinced myself losing a baby is easier than a grown child because you don’t share as much history. I probably even tried to believe there was a small sense of relief because her life would have had challenges.

"Fog that!' Peter joined my Dad to canoe from Montreal to Quebec City. They coined the term on a bad weather day.

“Fog that!’ Peter joined my Dad to canoe from Montreal to Quebec City. They coined the term on a bad weather day.

Now that I am a mother, I better understand – nothing compares to losing a child, regardless of age or circumstance. Now that I have endured my own tragedy, I further understand the hurt never goes away, no matter what follows.

When seeking good relationship role models, Peter and Catherine are impossible not to love and admire. They share a great life and genuinely enjoy each other. The last time I saw them, they were holding hands like teenagers. But I refuse to believe they live well despite their losses. Rather, partly because of them.

They lost their child. Catherine’s father died tragically and mother has Multiple Sclerosis. My grandfather spent his last weekend at Muskoka, announced “it doesn’t get much better than this” and then passed away from old age on the commute back to Toronto. A great way to go, unless you were Peter, the driver. They grieved Strachan as much as anyone. He lived with them in Montreal and shared a particularly special bond. Now, he shares a memorial with Kristen on Mont-Royal.

peter and catherine dancing

Strachan and Chloe were married in their backyard on their 23rd wedding anniversary

If their lives are indeed charmed, it is because they make them that way. Time has injured them too. Watching them choose empathy and humility over fear and bitterness makes them the jackpot of role models.

Every night Catherine rushes home to make dinner for her family, even if it means working late into the night. Every day Peter gets on all fours and chases the cat. Every month, he sends a video or bad joke to the entire family to keep us talking.They plan months ahead in order to make time for everyone. It is not roses and butterflies all the time; they still trade mundane to-do lists, get frustrated and argue. But they work hard at living well and feel lucky for being able to. That is as good as it gets.