The day I met Nelson and Winnie Mandela

By Admin Wednesday December 18 2013 in Opinion
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News of Nelson Mandela’s death brought back memories of that memorable day in 1990 when I met him and his then wife, Winnie Mandela.


As Director of Human Rights for the Ontario Federation of Labour, I was among a large group of trade union leaders selected to meet with Mandela over breakfast.


These were heads of unions who had supported the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa both materially and politically. In Canada their members were engaged in boycotts and had campaigned seriously for sanctions against the racist regime.


We had gathered in a downtown hotel. Mandela and Winnie were not present for breakfast. At some point we were informed that Mandela was not well and would be late for the meeting. Eventually, after waiting for more than an hour, we were told he was on his way down to meet with the group. By this time the excitement in the room was building. Strangely enough, I was quite calm – that is until the door opened and this tall, stately man entered the room.


Our eyes locked across the room for a brief moment and with an almost imperceptible nod the politician walked to his seat. Not so with Winnie, the activist, she acknowledged my presence with a broad smile and, indeed, throughout the meeting we kept smiling across the table at each other. We had connected – two Black women in a room full of White men and women.


Thanks to Winnie, I have a beautiful photograph with the two of them. Because Mandela was late for our meeting he was also late for subsequent meetings that day. There was some discussion about time for a photo-session. Eventually his people agreed that we could have a shoot but we would have to be quick about it. We formed a line and were told to shake Mandela’s hand and move on – quickly.


As I approached for my handshake and photograph, the photographer was on his knees changing batteries and being cognizant of time restraints, I walked on instead of waiting for the photographer to resume. Well, Winnie would have none of that, she grabbed my arm pulling me back – by which time the photographer was on his feet again and took what I now consider to be a historic photo.


While meeting the Mandelas in 1990 was a high point of my career, attending the 1994 elections was another memorable experience for me. And as I watched the throngs trekking to the memorial last Monday, and then the viewing, I was reminded of that historical election.


I was fortunate to be one of 11 trade unionists accredited as International Observers. I remain amazed at the determination of the people to vote, even with what seemed like insurmountable challenges. Throngs walked for miles and waited for hours to vote for Mandela – Madiba or Tata. Some could be seen carrying disabled relatives or neighbours on bicycles, on their backs or pushing them on handmade carts and other contraptions. It was quite a sight.


Observing the voting process was interesting, but observing the resolve and resilience of the people was a very humbling and moving experience.


I can recall, vividly, the resolve of a pregnant woman at a polling station in Soweto. She had been standing in line for several hours and had fainted. When she was revived, she was encouraged to go home but she was adamant that she had to vote even if meant she had to wait all day and into the night.


Another incident that springs to mind is a conversation that I overheard between a very old woman (at another polling station) and the returning officer. The old woman kept saying she wanted to vote for Tata and the returning officer kept telling her there was no Tata on the ballot. True, there was no Tata on the ballot but the old woman obviously meant Mandela. After a few minutes of this back and forth, I was just as frustrated as the old lady. She was determined that she was going to vote for Tata and this voting official probably would have had her removed if observers were not in the polling station.


The stand-off was resolved when I asked the returning officer if Mandela was called Tata, and before she could answer, the old lady shouted Mandela, Mandela, I want to vote for Mandela.


I observed her casting her ballot – assisted by the same official – and she left the polling station quite jubilant.


When he was released from prison, it was clear he had the love of his people. Although many now are disenchanted with the slow pace of reforms in the country, it is clear that they still loved him, a love and affection that continued to his dying day.


There will never be another Mandela. May his soul rest in peace.

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