Toronto-based anti-apartheid activist Zeib Jeeva was at the forefront of a celebration on Danforth Ave. on February 11, 1990 to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years in a South African jail.
He was also part of the committee that laid the groundwork for Mandela’s first visit to Canada in June of that year. Three months later, Jeeva met Mandela in Johannesburg during a meeting with African National Congress (ANC) representatives.
“I remember sitting in Nelson’s office and being in awe,” recalled Jeeva. “Just to be in his presence and hear him speak was inspirational.”
Mandela, the first Black president of a democratic South Africa and the first living non-Canadian to receive honorary citizenship, passed away a week ago after a lengthy illness. The Nobel Prize laureate was 95.
Canada was one of the first countries that Mandela visited after his release.
“This country was very close to his heart,” said Jeeva who was bestowed with the Order of Ontario last year. “He understood that Canada was at the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle and that was the principal reason why Joe Clark was among the first western foreign ministers to meet with Mandela two weeks after his release in Lusaka.”
Refused entry into the University of Witwatersrand, Jeeva came to Canada in 1970 and was instrumental in establishing the Canadian chapter of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in 1998.
“He was very concerned about children and their upliftment,” Jeeva said. “I will remember him for that in addition to his amazing spirit of forgiveness.”
For six years, Mark Beckles was the president and chief executive officer of the Canadian chapter that raised millions of dollars to support programs for impoverished youth in South Africa.
“I had the privilege of leading a great organization that bore his name, the mission and mandate which was to champion the rights of children,” said Beckles, a regional vice-president of the Royal Bank of Canada. “Through that experience, I had many opportunities to meet him and while the interactions were brief, they were not without profound impact.
“Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from him is having a sense of urgency about time and about the issues that confront humanity. I also grasped that we are indeed each other’s keeper and that we do not need to look very far to find intolerance or injustice. He taught us that if we look inward and resolve to be vessels of love, respect and goodwill, then we can all be forces of change in this world. His passing is an opportunity for us to ask the question, ‘How will I make my life count for the rest of my days on this earth’?”
Speaking in the Ontario Legislature last Monday, Premier Kathleen Wynne said there are few individuals who have done more to inspire the world than Mandela.
“As a student of history and a huge believer in the power of the human spirit, I know his life will continue to serve as a beacon throughout South Africa, here in Ontario and around the world,” she added. “It is difficult to find new ways to talk about this man or the things he meant to us individually. But I find myself returning again and again to the fact that he spent 27 years locked away in prison. This punishment – as unjust and inhumane as it was – did not break him. It’s a testament to his spirit – to the human spirit – that he did not allow himself to be taken over by anger.”
During Mandela’s first visit to Toronto, he addressed close to 1,500 students from across the country at Central Technical School.
Retired Toronto District School Board (TDSB) administrator Lloyd McKell played a leading role in organizing Mandela’s visit to the school.
“The auditorium was electrified with his presence, the students stood there in rapture at his every word, this man who they had heard about who seemed like a mythical person but was real when he was standing among them,” recalled McKell.
On his first visit to South Africa a few weeks ago, McKell visited the house in Soweto where Mandela lived before he was imprisoned, his Johannesburg residence, the prison cell in which he was held on Robben Island for 18 of 27 years and the Groot Drakenstein correctional facility where he spent the final months of his lengthy prison term.
“I also stood on the spot in Capetown where he made his first speech after his release from prison,” McKell added. “I will remember him for his compassion, kindness, sense of forgiveness and love of children which I saw firsthand.”
Mandela addressed close to 45,000 students at SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) on his second visit in September 1998 and Public Park School was renamed Nelson Mandela Park Public School during his last visit in November 2001.
A lasting image of that renaming ceremony was Carnelle Gabriel – the student selected to present a gift to Mandela – breaking down in tears and Mandela comforting her by placing his arms around the girl and kissing her on the cheek.
The school’s flag is being flown at half-staff and there was a celebration of his life at a special assembly last Friday. Just hours after Mandela died, there was a screening of Long Walk to Freedom, a new film chronicling Mandela’s inspirational journey, at the Regent Park School.
“What timing,” said the school’s principal, Jason Kandankery.
During his final visit to Canada 12 years ago, Mandela was also granted honorary Canadian citizenship and Ryerson University bestowed honorary degrees on him and his wife, Graca Machel.
Reading Mandela’s citation remains one of two highlights of Dr. Joseph Springer’s distinguished career.
“Lifting my only son for the first time is the other,” said the school of urban and regional planning professor. “Nelson Mandela has made an enormous difference in the world and in his lifetime. To me, he epitomises the concept of mobility and he enlivens the principles of justice. In this manner, he has earned the respect and affection of millions of people across the globe and from all walks of life.”
Just two months after undergoing prostate cancer surgery, Trinidad-born Springer was invited by then university president Claude Lajeunesse to read the citation.
“That was a difficult time for me and to be given that honour by Claude was very uplifting,” recounted Springer who kissed the former South African president’s hand. “To be in Mandela’s presence was overwhelming.”
Former Member of Parliament Jean Augustine said Mandela, who she met a few times, was a living symbol of the power of the human spirit and a true modern day hero.
“He fought and stood by his strong beliefs in fundamental human rights, the right to dignity, freedom and equality that we all cherish as Canadians,” said Augustine who was an election observer representing the Canadian government in the 1994 South African elections. “His courage to challenge the injustices of the oppressive system of apartheid in South Africa cannot be understated.”
Canadian Senator Don Meredith noted that Mandela, who was appointed an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada in 1998, was an inspiration for him.
“While we mourn his passing, it is comforting to know that his legacy will live on,” he said. “In addition to the countless parks, schools and squares named in his honour, his name will continue to be associated with humanitarianism, dignity and unyielding optimism.”
Human Rights Legal Support Centre board chair Pat Case spent six weeks in South Africa as an election monitor in 1994.
“I will never forget that experience,” said Case, a former TDSB equity adviser. “There were events that I witnessed during those weeks in South Africa that I will never see the like of again. Mandela was the shepherd, never goading, but urging and inspiring.”
Mandela was forced to transform the ANC from an underground and exiled group into a government-in-waiting, unlearn the shibboleths of socialism that had been discarded by majority of the world while he was imprisoned and engender a culture of trust in a society riddled with hate and racial fears.
When Mandela’s political activism led to suspension from the University of Fort Hare, he moved to Johannesburg in 1941 and founded the ANC’s Youth league. For nearly 17 months in the early 1960s, he eluded police disguising as a chauffeur or garden boy while working underground.
It was during this period that Mandela’s legend began to grow and he attracted international attention as the eloquent lead defendant in the Rivonia Trial in which a group of ANC leaders were accused of plotting acts of sabotage against the government.
Mandela and seven co-defendants received life sentences.
A heavyweight boxer in his youth, Mandela became a keen soccer fan when he arrived on Robben Island. The sport, which was played on the prison ground, helped keep the political inmates sane.
The funeral will be held on December 15 and his final resting place will be in the Eastern Cape where he wrote his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom.