THE BLOG

How Mandela Shaped My Response to Discrimination

12/16/2013 12:01 EST | Updated 02/15/2014 05:59 EST

I grew up as a "regular" South African of Indian descent during the heydays of apartheid. My skin colour defined the areas I lived in, the level of health care and the education I received. In short, it dictated every aspect of my existence.

Because of the Group Areas Act which lumped people in areas according to their race, I spent most of my childhood in Chatsworth, an Indian-only township outside Durban. About the only interaction we had with other races was with African domestic workers -- cheap labour from African townships that were even further from the city centre.

As a mixed-race child, my life was even more complicated living in an Indian area. My dad was of (East) Indian descent, and my mother was classified as "Coloured." They had to choose between living in an Indian or Coloured area.

I had always wanted to be a journalist, a profession especially frowned upon for Indian women. For many years I was the only female reporter in my newsroom. I covered anti-apartheid rallies, I was tear-gassed and chased by police dogs as I fled with protestors (journalists were also targeted by security forces) and could only publish police accounts of these events during the State of Emergency in the 1980s.

Even if I saw three people shot dead, if police reported one death, that's the account I had to publish. When media outlets protested by replacing censored content with ink blocks they were threatened with hefty fines, imprisonment and potential closure.

In all the years, even though he was behind bars serving a life sentence for treason, Mandela's unwavering spirit kept the struggle alive in South Africa. Notes smuggled out from prison, economic pressure on the South African government from countries such as Canada, and the brutal crackdown by the apartheid regime, ensured that the issue remained in the spotlight.

Mandela gave purpose and hope to people; many died in the struggle to uphold the same beliefs that he held and for which he was also prepared to die.

It would be another decade of living under apartheid and stringent media restrictions before I left for Canada. My plan was to return to South Africa after two years of tasting what it would be like to work in a "free" environment.

In my first year in Canada, I found out that my close friend and former colleague, Rafiq Rohan, had been arrested on terrorism charges. It turns out that he had received training in neighbouring countries while we worked together and was arrested fleeing from a police station where he had planted an explosive device.

In his appearance before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission years later, he recalled how police were preparing to execute him in a roadside ditch, but the arrival of an ambulance saved his life.

It's a conflicted time for many in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid, the situation hasn't quite worked out as speedily or seamlessly as many had hoped. Though people's dignities have been restored, millions of homes have been provided, running water and electricity are now available to many, there's still a monumental task ahead to address the issues of poverty and that fact that millions more are still without homes and other basic services. Now more than ever strong leadership is required to deal with corruption allegations plaguing the government, tackle crime and create jobs for people.

Fast forward to my life in Canada, which has taken some weird and wonderful turns since I made it my home.

I met and married my husband (also an ex-South African), and we have two wonderful daughters. I have worked at some of the largest media organizations in the country, and my job has taken me places I never dreamed of visiting. Today I'm proud to work for AOL Canada, where I'm General Manager of the Huffington Post Canada.

I think back to April 1994 and how excited I was to not only be voting for the first time in my life, but to be voting for the first democratic election in South Africa. I still remember the feeling of dread when I realized that I might miss the momentous occasion because of stop-and-go traffic on the Gardiner Expressway. The polling station was in Oakville, which has one of the larger concentrations of ex South Africans. I had just finished my 10-6 shift at the Toronto Sun, and made it with 15 minutes to spare.

Living in Canada has opportunities that people in other countries can only dream of. However, it's not without its own problems.

In my years here, I've been told three times to "go back home," was informed by a major national daily newspaper they couldn't hire me because I didn't have Canadian experience (I think I still have the letter somewhere. This was pre-email days), and was rudely told by a well-known tire company employee that "In this country, we pay taxes." This, after the employee on the phone initially told me the price included taxes.

My husband and I were pulled over by York Regional Police because of our Toronto license plate. The police officer, who was extremely rude, explained there had been a number of robberies in the area which they believed were perpetrated by people from Toronto.

They searched the vehicle and let us go. I proceeded to York Regional Headquarters where the officer was called in by his superiors and he apologized. As a reporter, I knew how to get recourse; but these were also the lessons from Madiba to fight injustice. My stories pale in to insignificance compared to what others experienced in our own backyard.

The most troubling part is that my children, who were born here, will always be asked "where are you from?"

Mandela's outlook and approach influenced how I dealt with all the situation above, and how I continue to live my life. Case in point is a recent invitation to a swanky restaurant/night club that I declined because it's well known for profiling who they let through the doors. I'm not talking about just people of colour not being allowed in, but all forms of discrimination -- against people who might be considered overweight, or who don't meet the bouncer's idea of dress code.

As the official mourning period ends in South Africa and Mandela is laid to rest in his home town in Qunu, I can only hope to imitate his incredible capacity for forgiveness. I continue to be inspired by his other actions that include his refusal to negotiate conditions around his release and his legacy of justice and equality.

We can honour Mandela's legacy by speaking out when we come across an injustice, be it schoolyard bullying, homophobia, racism or anything that marginalizes people because of who they are. This is a lesson for all -- not just South Africans.

Hamba Kahle Tata Madiba.

Mandela Memorial Service