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Harper in South Africa to pay final respects to Nelson Mandela

ABOARD ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE 001 – Even after his death, Nelson Mandela has done what no one else seemingly could – bring Canada’s past-and-present political leadership together, in one space, for a single cause – if only for a few hours.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and three of his predecessors – Jean Chretien, Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell – sat in close quarters as they winged their way to South Africa late Sunday in the elaborate front cabin of a government Airbus.

BLOG: Remembering Nelson Mandela live from South Africa

But not just any aircraft. The leaders were headed to pay their respects to Mandela comfortably seated in what Chretien once non-affectionately dubbed the “Taj Mahal,” a reference to the front stateroom with which the plane was retrofitted when Mulroney bought a fleet of the jetliners during his time in office.

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Now, however, the animosity of the past was gone, at least on the surface.

READ MORE: South African police prepare for Mandela ceremony

“I’m not a grumpy politician anymore,” Mulroney said with a smile as he spoke of the significance of being in such close proximity with his former rivals.

Video: World leaders and celebrities head to South Africa for Mandela memorial

“I’m a statesman now,” he laughed.

As he took one of his trademark strolls to the back of the plane, Chretien openly lamented that he never used this particular aircraft during his three terms in office, expressly because of the fleecing he gave Mulroney to paint him as a free spending politician with a taste for Gucci style.

Chretien also expressed his disappointment that Canada doesn’t put its former prime ministers to work for the country’s betterment and to promote international relations after they leave office.

READ MORE: South Africa prepares for arrival of world leaders for Mandela funeral

“It’s not our tradition,” Chretien told the three reporters accompanying the prime ministers, former governors general, premiers and other dignitaries on the journey to Johannesburg.

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“And it’s too bad,” he said.

It was a less-than-subtle point that highlighted the tug-of-war style of Canadian politics as the two former PMs reflected on Mandela’s unique consensus-building abilities.

When Mandela was released from custody after 27 years in prison, many a pundit has noted that he could have launched his country into civil war.

Video: South Africans continue to mourn the death of Mandela

Instead, he chose the path of peace, and eventually saw South Africa’s apartheid regime crumble.

READ MORE: Stephen Lewis recalls Mandela’s deep respect for Canada, Mulroney

WATCH: PM Stephen Harper joined by former Prime Ministers Mulroney, Campbell, and Chretien discusses the historic trip to South Africa

As the Canadian delegation flew over the Atlantic Ocean, just prior to refuelling in Cape Verde, Harper spoke briefly of Canada’s role in ensuring Mandela’s release from prison.

“It really tells you about the long and leading history of Canada from the days of Mr. (John) Diefenbaker on, and the struggle that defined Nelson Mandela’s life – the struggle against apartheid and the transition of South Africa to a modern, non-racial state,” Harper said, flanked by Chretien to his right and Mulroney and Campbell sitting across from him at the stateroom’s wood grain table.

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“It’s something we should all be very proud of and I’m greatly honoured to be joined by Mr. Mulroney, Mrs. Campbell and Mr. Chretien as well as Mr. (Joe) Clark who will join us when we reach South Africa.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with former prime ministers Brian Mulroney (left), Kim Campbell and Jean Chretien on board a government plane travelling to South Africa Sunday December 8, 2013. Harper and the former prime ministers are travelling to South Africa to attend the memorial for Nelson Mandela. Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with former prime ministers Brian Mulroney (left), Kim Campbell and Jean Chretien on board a government plane travelling to South Africa Sunday December 8, 2013. Harper and the former prime ministers are travelling to South Africa to attend the memorial for Nelson Mandela. Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

But 30 years ago, it was a huge gamble on Canada’s part to support the fight against the country’s racist policies and to demand the release of Mandela, said Mulroney.

VIDEO: Former PM Brian Mulroney recalls his friendship with Nelson Mandela

The United States and the U.K. were “offside,” he noted, and Mandela’s African National Congress needed a G7 country in its corner.

“We knew we were doing the right thing, but on the other hand we also knew that it was a tough battle,” he said, adding that other nations – including Canada – could learn from how Mandela brought people together.

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“When you just get one look at what president Mandela did in South Africa, you know it was all worthwhile.”

“It’s an over-wrought expression, but Nelson Mandela was an iconic figure who was truly a great man.”

VIDEO: Jean Chretien offers up some stories of his time with Nelson Mandela

Chretien, who will celebrate his 80th birthday next month, said there is no true comparison to Mandela among world leaders, because every one of them is different.

“We are all people coming from a long way from (South Africa),” he said, adding with a smile “You know I’m from rural Quebec.”

Chretien pointed out that Russia’s Vladimir Putin was an orphan who never met his parents, and that Britain’s John Major “was the son of a circus acrobat.”

Mandela, the son of a tribal leader who later became a lawyer, will be remembered Tuesday at a public memorial in Johannesburg, and on Wednesday as he lies in state in Pretoria. A state funeral will be held next Sunday.

And it is respect for the man that Canada’s leaders share that is important this week as South Africa shows the world both its pride in Mandela and its pain in losing him, said former Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean.

“To see representatives of all political families together going to South Africa to pay tribute to Mandela is totally in the spirit of the man,” Jean said as she prepared to board the plane.

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“So I’m proud of us.”

Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was also among those who joined the Canadian pilgrimage to pay homage to Mandela, along with the premiers of the Yukon, Nova Scotia and Alberta, and Assembly of First Nations national Chief Shawn Atleo.