This past week we celebrated Nelson Mandela Day. Mandela was a monumental figure in world history. And many years ago I had the honour of meeting him.
It was June 1990, a hot summer day and one I have never forgotten. Only a few months earlier the iconic leader of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela had been released from serving a 27-year jail sentence and was in the midst of a tour to Europe and North America.
During these visits Mandela specifically wanted to meet with Jewish leadership. It was no secret that many Jews in South Africa were amongst the few whites that were strong and keen activists within the anti-apartheid movement.
Yet for Mandela on a personal level, South African Jews played a pivotal role. Lazer Sidelsky hired a fresh out of law school Mandela as a law clerk with his firm. Few, if any blacks were brought on to such positions. Later as Mandela’s political views were being formed people like Nat Bregman a fellow communist became one of Mandela’s mentors and by Mandela’s own admission his first white friend.
During both his trials South African Jews played pivotal roles as part of his defence team (Issie Maisels and Baron Joel Joffee) or as strong supporters (Lionel Bernstein, Joe Slovo and Ruth First). Others such as Helen Suzman would also play a key role fighting the apartheid South African regime.
Mandela also held a special place in his heart for Canada and Canadians. Recall it was then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who led an international political fight on behalf of Mandela in countering apartheid. For his role Mulroney was awarded the Supreme Companion of Oliver Reginald Tambo, South Africa’s highest award to a foreign national in December 2015. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reflecting the Mosaic Institute’s own motto of Difference is the Solution stated at the time:
“In Canada, diverse perspectives and different opinions are celebrated, not silenced. Canadians know that we are stronger not in spite of our differences, but because of them. I am therefore very proud of the role Mr. Mulroney and Canada played in bringing an end to apartheid and helping Mr. Mandela’s fight for freedom.”
Nonetheless it was still very much a surprise when I came to my Canadian Jewish Congress office early that morning in 1990 to receive a phone call from the head of the Mandela Canadian visit asking if we could bring a small delegation to meet with Mr. Mandela at his Royal York suite for that afternoon.
With only a few hours to prepare I simply did not have the time to contemplate the historical and unique opportunity. I immediately got in touch with the then CJC president Les Scheininger and Chair of the executive Moshe Ronen. Along with my colleague Manuel Prutschi we made our way downtown for our rendezvous.
We were met in the lobby of the hotel and ushered into Mr. Mandela’s hotel suite. It is said that when you are in the presence of greatness you will know. I finally understood what that meant. Walking up to us, his arm outstretched, that beatific smile and eyes that swallowed us, all was Nelson Mandela. I was first struck by his height, well over six feet tall, strong and assured but with an easy manner and a gentle way.
I will never forget what he said as he greeted us, “Hello” he said in a quiet but firm voice, “I’m Nelson Mandela and it is truly an honour to meet you.”
The humility of his greeting shook me to my core. In those few words I understood the essence of Nelson Mandela. As he approached to shake my hand I found myself tongue tied at first but his gentle manner and kind eyes unfroze my tongue, “Mr. Mandela I’m humbled and feel so privileged to meet you” I mumbled.
He led us into the living room of his suite, introduced us to his wife Winnie and a short time later another guest joined us, then Minister of External Affairs the Honourable Joe Clarke. At any other time to meet Minister Clarke would have been a huge honour in itself. Today Joe Clarke like our delegation was in awe of this man of conscience.
In total we probably spent 25 minutes talking with Nelson Mandela but it seemed like an entire afternoon. His modesty yet depth of purpose seemed as though they shouldn’t fit yet they merged in a manner that is hard to describe. I very much doubt I will ever have the experience again of being with a man who in his simple yet courageous and elegant way was an astonishing agent of change, a man who truly helped make this world a better place.
Photo credit: Jay Yair Brodbar
Bernie M. Farber is Executive Director of The Mosaic Institute. He is a native of Ottawa and a graduate of Carleton University. His long-spanning career in the not-for-profit sector includes the role of CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress (2005-2011) where he spearheaded multiple inter-faith initiatives and dialogues among diaspora groups in Canada including Rwandan genocide survivors and support for the Roma community. Most recently, Bernie has served as Senior Vice President of Gemini Power Corporation where he has been working in partnership with First Nations peoples towards economic development and community self-reliance in a way that respects both the environment and First Nations’ traditional values. Bernie is a recipient of the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, the Zaionz Award for Jewish Communal Service, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and the St John Provincial Commendation.
“Bernie’s View” is Bernie’s regular contribution to the Mosaic Institute blog. We hope you are stimulated and challenged; and we look forward to your comments in the Mosaic manner.