By PAT WATSON
We all have our Mandela stories. Mine occurred on June 18, 1990. That was the day Nelson Mandela came to town. He had chosen Canada as the first foreign country he would visit after his release from prison in South Africa. As is now well known, the life sentence on the charge of treason invoked against Mandela by the apartheid South African regime was terminated after 27 years, steamrollered by activist groups the world over that protested and demanded sanctions against the apartheid state.
The activists here in Canada and especially in Toronto were at the forefront of that crusade. In fact, it was little known for quite a while that Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), had an office on The Danforth. That is, until February 1990 when it became the location for the first burst of celebration in the city after the news of Mandela’s release.
But, back to that day in June 1990. It was a workday, a Monday, and a group of co-workers had been buzzing about the arrival of the ANC leader in the city. There was no special ‘day pass’ to leave work, but the majority of the staff decided that a chance to be in the same space with Mandela – to see the great man – could not be passed up. So off we went. And we walked, because there was something significant about not just jumping into a cab to arrive at our Queen’s Park destination. We started walking from Regent Park, and eventually turned up University Avenue. As we got closer to Queen’s Park, the numbers of people walking in the same direction just kept growing, and growing. Our walk became a march. There were now groups of people with banners, and flags, some wearing t-shirts with all manner of related captions. Everywhere was the cry of Amandla! Power! Then came the response, Awethu! To us! There was such a sense of triumph in the air.
Arriving at Queen’s Park on that sunny day in late spring, we waited, and when he – 71 years old and thin – appeared along with Winnie Mandela, there was a roar from the crowd, such a roar it was hard to hear his speech.
He said in part: “You, the people of Canada – acting through your anti-apartheid solidarity organizations, the church, the peace movement, women’s organizations, trade unions, political parties and the youth organizations and non-government organizations – have over the past 25 years been a constant source of support and inspiration to us. We thank you for refusing to forget us. We thank you for your tireless support. It is remarkable that so many of you could give up so much of your time to help the people separated from you by thousands of miles. Thank you for that commitment and dedication. It reached all of us.”
Then in a glimpse of what was to come, he promised, “We are on the threshold of major changes in South Africa.”
Some who remember Mandela, “The Lion of Africa”, the fighter, the boxer and trained lawyer, take offence at the repackaging of Mandela as a gentle, grandfather figure. I believe these characterizations are not mutually exclusive. The man was all of these and so much more. To hear his command of facts, and the clarity of his interpretation of events of the day, remembering that he was also a politician in a world where we have grown accustomed to politicians who speak a language that can best be described as obfuscation, is to enter a different dimension of political dialogue. He could be, and was, very direct.
Mandela’s life, as with all humans, reached its end date. His was December 5, but his legacy will live on. No doubt, there are young children today whose lives are being imprinted by the momentous occasion of his death. No doubt, there are children who will take up the cause and lead the way as Mandela has done. Humankind needs these individuals. They set the example for us to follow. Mandela and the few like him throughout the ages are living embodiments of principles. These individuals not only talk the talk, they walk the walk without deviating from it. The effect is awesome and, knowing our own human failings, we recognize them as awesome.
A further note on Mandela memorial…
S.A. President Jacob Zuma’s calls for a “united rainbow nation” at this time of mourning is fitting and sends a message of hope for Mandela’s legacy.
Pat Watson is the author of the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens. Twitter@patprose.