Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Memories of Mandela

'You really felt you were in the presence of greatness,' says Winnipegger who met South African peacemaker

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Nelson Mandela is being remembered by Manitobans as a statesman, as a peacemaker, and as a nation builder.

But while many are putting these thoughts and more to paper in a memory book at the Legislature, there are a lucky few in Winnipeg and Manitoba who actually met the man, and others who grew up in South Africa during the 27 years Mandela was incarcerated.

 

Stan Rhoda and his 92-year-old father, Bill, signed the condolence book at the Legislative Building.

Rhoda said Mandela has a direct connection to his family through his dad.

"My dad went to (the University of) Fort Hare, a special university set up for non-whites," Rhoda said.

"Mandela was doing law and dad was doing science at the same time." The men got to know each other on the athletic field. "They played rugby together," Rhoda said. "No, my dad never tackled Mandela -- they were on the same side."

Stan, who was born in South Africa in 1948, said he grew up during apartheid, through to Mandela's trial and incarceration in 1964. Most of the family left the country in 1968, although he and a brother left a couple of years later.

"Coming to Canada was one of the greatest gifts," he said.

"We always regarded (Mandela) as a freedom fighter standing up to apartheid. The state always thought of him as a terrorist.

"But Mandela's gift is really being able to have a large bird's-eye view and really toeing the line between being theoretical and pragmatic."

Strini Reddy, a 75-year-old anti-apartheid activist who grew up in South Africa before moving to Winnipeg when he was 23, said he was honoured to meet Mandela briefly during a visit to his homeland in 1991.

Reddy said members of the African National Congress, Mandela's political party, would stay in his house when they were on speaking tours in Canada during the apartheid years.

Reddy said he went to the ANC's headquarters to visit some of the people he had met and that's when one of them asked if he'd like to meet Mandela.

A few minutes later, Reddy said he was shown into Mandela's office.

"You really felt you were in the presence of greatness, which I was," Reddy said.

"He stood up, came from around the desk and shook my hand... he said he wanted to thank me for hosting his people when they came to speak in Canada. He also said, 'I'm very glad you haven't forgotten you are a South African.'"

During that five minute meeting, Reddy said he never felt Mandela wanted him to leave or that he was being kept from something important.

"It was actually me that made the excuse that I should leave," he said.

"I was blessed with the opportunity."

Reddy said he is currently working on organizing a memorial service in honour of Mandela, likely to be held next Saturday.

Meira Cook, author of The House on Sugarbush Road, which was named McNally Robinson Manitoba book of the year and is set in her home country in the post-apartheid era, said she never met Mandela. For the first 27 years of her life he was incarcerated. She left the country in 1990, about the time Mandela was released.

"For all of my life he had been incarcerated -- I don't remember a time he wasn't in jail," she said.

"Growing up, people didn't speak about him He was banned. But I remember there was always graffiti saying 'Hang in there Mandela' and 'Free Mandela'."

While Cook said she never saw Mandela in person, she was touched by seeing a letter he wrote.

"I was visiting a restaurant with friends and it was run by an East Indian family," she said.

"There was a framed letter from Mandela thanking the proprietor for bringing him food when he was being tried and was in jail.

"It said he'd heard his restaurant was going to shut down and he said it made him sad because he thought when he was released so much of his world he knew would have disappeared."

Cook said the letter touched her because it showed that even after years of incarceration, Mandela knew that he would be released some day.

"He was truly somebody. He was a hero who didn't falter. There wasn't a sense of his falling from grace.

"I just never lost faith in him."

Gavin van der Linde is now the Mayor of Morris, but until 1999, he lived in his home country of South Africa.

Van der Linde said when he was born in 1967, Mandela had already been in jail for three years.

"When I was a child growing up, I knew who Mandela was, but very little else," he said.

"It was only after I grew up that I came to understand what was happening and who he was."

Van der Linde said he respected how Mandela kept the country peaceful during the early years after his release in 1990.

"He had a view for the nation," he said.

"He had been treated badly, but he knew his focus had to be on building a nation."

Now when he goes back to visit South Africa, van der Linde said he sees a country with a large black middle class.

"I never met him, but I would have been honoured to have met him," he said.

"He paid a price to get the country where it is today."

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 A6

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