While campaigning in Orange Free State in 1994 just weeks before South Africa’s first free elections, Nelson Mandela’s presence at a rally drew thousands of star-struck Blacks desperate for change after segregation was introduced as an official policy following the 1948 elections.
Just eight years old at the time, Mosa Mokuena lost her shoes in the mad scramble to catch a glimpse of the renowned anti-apartheid revolutionary who became the country’s first Black president.
“Everybody wanted to see the great man and there was a stampede,” she said. “That was one of two times (the other was at her church a few years later) that I was in Mandela’s presence.”
Mokuena was among hundreds who attended a Regent Park celebration last week to mark Mandela’s 95th birthday.
“When I think of Nelson Mandela, humility, compassion and love for mankind are the words that immediately come to my mind,” said the fashion designer and stylist whose mother, Tselane Mokuena, is South Africa’s consul general in Toronto. “I was born in the 1980s and we grew up knowing about the great man and what he stood for. Even though I am vacationing in this city with my son, it was important for me to come here today and be part of this tribute.”
Ramie Veerappan, who has lived in the Greater Toronto Area for nearly four decades, said she first became aware of Mandela while studying nursing in England.
“I joined the African National Congress and was part of many anti-apartheid rallies and protests over the years,” said the founding executive director of Integrity Tours Inc. and former registered nurse administrator. “Mandela opened doors for people like me and countless others.”
The United Nations declared last Thursday Nelson Mandela International Day and urged people to use the occasion to honour his work to reconcile Blacks and Whites in South Africa.
“Today, we are running short of heroes and heroines,” said South Africa’s high commissioner, Membathsis Mdladlana, who has served four South African presidents, including Mandela, who appointed him Minister of Labour in 1998. “One of them is lying in a hospital bed. We need heroes for peace, humility, wisdom, courage and forgiveness because to forgive is a skill.”
Mandela, who has been hospitalized since June 8 with a recurring lung infection, made three visits to the Greater Toronto Area after being freed from prison on February 11, 1990 after 27 years of incarceration.
The first was in June 1990 when he addressed nearly 1,500 students from across the country at Central Technical School.
“As the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) vice-chair at the time, I couldn’t believe myself standing on the stage and going ‘Yes, yes, yes’ (as he was speaking),” said Pam McConnell. “It was so undiplomatic, but it was the essence of what the man was about which was the power and understanding of bringing people together.”
Retired TDSB administrator, Lloyd McKell, was a principal organizer of the birthday celebration. He also played a key role in organizing Mandela’s visit to Central Tech.
“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 in this auditorium,” said McKell. “What he was able to communicate to those young people as he spoke directly to them was a sense of bonding emotionally with them, relating to them as young people and calling upon them to do whatever they can in their lives to establish a spirit of democracy, of caring, of forgiveness and conciliation.”
Mandela addressed almost 45,000 students at SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) on his second trip in September 1998 and Park Public School was renamed Nelson Mandela Park Public School during his final visit in November 2001.
Last week’s celebration was held in the schoolyard.
“Nelson Mandela is the inspiration for the sense of hope and purpose that we try to instil in the children who attend this school each day and he’s the ultimate symbol of change that we hope our children come to embody,” said recently appointed school principal, Jason Kandankery, who was accompanied on stage by vice-principal, Ainsworth Morgan.
During his last visit, Mandela was granted honorary Canadian citizenship – His Highness the Aga Khan, the 14th Dalai Lama, Holocaust hero Raoul Wallenberg and Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi are also bestowed with the honour – and Ryerson University bestowed honorary degrees on him and his wife, Graca Machel.
Reading Mandela’s citation remains a highlight of Dr. Joseph Springer’s distinguished career.
“Nelson Mandela has made an enormous difference in the world and in his lifetime,” Springer said 12 years ago. “To me, he epitomizes 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.”
A Johannesburg foundation asked well-wishers to dedicate 67 minutes Thursday to charity in honour of the 67 years Mandela spent fighting to end racial segregation in South Africa.
The crowd took part in a global round of applause that lasted 67 seconds and then joined retired baseball player-turned-TV analyst, Greg Zaun, in singing happy birthday to Mandela.
“Nelson Mandela truly touched the world of sport,” said Zaun, who spent 16 years catching in Major League Baseball before retiring in 2010. “His work has made it possible for equality in baseball and every other sport.”
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.