Nelson Mandela, an icon in the fight against apartheid, and South Africa’s first black president, died Thursday at age 95 after a lengthy illness. He was known as one of the world’s most beloved statesmen.
Winnie and Nelson Mandela raise their arms to salute a crowd that gathered at
St. John’s International Airport on June 18, 1990. The Mandelas’ plane stopped for refuelling that day as the anti-apartheid icon and his then-wife were making their first visit to North America since Nelson’s release from prison in South Africa.
— Photo courtesy of Nancy Creighton
The news flashed across the world, leaving many mourning the passing of a man who left an indelible legacy in the fight for equality and freedom.
St. John’s businesswoman Peg Norman recalls Mandela stopping at the airport on June 18, 1990.
She was among more than 50 people who learned of the stop through a telephone tree connecting the local activist community.
After his release from prison, Mandela and his then-wife Winnie were coming to Canada for a state visit and the plane, en route to Ottawa, stopped for refuelling in a private hangar at St. John’s airport.
The crowd of well-wishers showed up not knowing if Mandela would even get off the plane.
But when someone told Mandela about the group of Newfoundlanders who wanted to meet him, he and Winnie came out and greeted the crowd.
“He thanked us for coming out as strong anti-apartheid supporters and said he was happy to be in Canada,” Norman recalled.
“It was pretty special,” Norman said.
Rick Page, a carpenter in St. John’s, recalls that Oxfam’s local office organized the phone tree and he and wife Susan Shiner and their two children Claire and Ian, then four and two, went out to the airport.
Ian’s middle name is Nelson, after Mandela.
“We never thought he would get out of jail,” Page said of the decision to name their son for the legendary leader.
“We wanted the kids to know this was an important person in the world.”
Out at the airport that day more than two decades ago, Ian Nelson Page-Shiner was holding an African National Congress flag and put his fist in the air, Page said.
Mandela reciprocated and smiled at the toddler.
Nancy Creighton, who now lives in Ontario, was also there, and managed to find a good vantage point near the front of the crowd to take several pictures of the Mandelas.
“I had a couple of cameras on me, one of which I found out later didn’t have any film in it,” said Creighton, who worked for a women’s enterprise bureau at the time of Mandela’s visit.
“I thought, ‘This man has a presence’ ... And at the time he visited us, he had just been released from jail. He still didn’t have the right to vote, and then he later became president of his country. It was really an amazing moment in time to be there.”
N.L. was first stop on North American visit after 27-year imprisonment
St. John’s lawyer Bob Buckingham became a vocal anti-apartheid activist while attending university in the late 1960s. In 1998, he saw Mandela speak in Ottawa while attending an event that gave the South African leader a chance to meet with non-governmental organizations based in Canada — Buckingham was Oxfam Canada’s vice-chair at the time.
“It was 15 years ago, and I remember it like it was almost yesterday,” said Buckingham, who remained optimistic Mandela would one day be released from prison, though he could never have imagined the man would one day lead South Africa’s government.
“Through that whole struggle I think we all kept a very positive outlook and a positive attitude,” said Buckingham. “We knew it was an uphill battle. Every year, from when I became involved when I was in the student movement, every year after that it grew and grew and grew. The movement grew in Canada. It grew nationally. The boycotts grew.”
During Mandela’s podium appearance in Ottawa, Buckingham was particularly moved when former Canadian Senator and Métis leader John Boucher gave Mandela a Métis sash (or ceinture fléchée) and bestowed on him an honorary Métis name — Diamant, meaning ‘diamond.’
“When Boucher presented (the sash) to him, he wrapped it around Mandela’s waist,” recalls Buckingham. “Mandela wore that sash for the rest of the day. He wore it when he spoke in Parliament. He wore it when he spoke at the Governor General’s dinner that night.”
He considered Mandela gesture a purposeful one, given the struggle of the Métis people in Canada.
“To this day, I am moved by that action.”
Buckingham considers Mandela’s death to be a personal loss, though he also expects the former South African leader will be remembered for a very long time.
“He’s going to have an impact on this world for a long time to come, and we should celebrate that.”
* This article has been corrected for a typographical error.