What I remember most about the day I shook hands with Nelson Mandela is not the firmness of his grip, but rather the power of his presence.
In 1998, the world-renowned freedom fighter visited Toronto to launch the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund Canada. Before the public launch of his charity, the former South African president and his wife, Graßa Machel, took time to meet with a group of First Nations people. Most were Grand Chiefs and politicians, but somehow I managed to luck out with an invitation.
Before Mandela came to meet with us, we stood around a nondescript conference room, joking and visiting with each other. I will never forget what came next: suddenly, in a feeling much like a calm before a storm, the room fell silent. Almost in unison, we all turned to look at the door. It felt as though the room started to fill with light, such was the power of the man who entered a few moments later. And then there he was, with a beaming smile, holding the hand of his wife.
It was funny to see some of the First Nations leaders tongue-tied around this great man. Keep in mind that these are chiefs who have spoken truth to power in their own ways and are rarely at a loss for words. Yet here they were, completely humbled by the sheer force of the personality they were now encountering.
When it was my turn to speak to Madiba, as his people call him, I grasped his outstretched hand and then presented him with a bundle of sage wrapped in black and red cloth. I told him the colours symbolized a bond of friendship between our two peoples. He seemed genuinely interested, asking me about the sage, what it was used for and whether its use predated European contact. When I replied it did, he smiled and thanked me gently. Our delegation also presented him and his wife with jackets. If you look on YouTube you can see they both wore those lovely Pendleton coats at the charity announcement later that day.
Today, as Mandela lies ailing in a Pretoria hospital, many are taking the time to reflect on his life and achievements, and with good reason. He is a Nobel laureate who was instrumental in bringing apartheid to an end. What I admire most about him is that he spent close to three decades in prison and kept his humanity intact. Rather than emerging with anger and calls for retribution, he instead insisted that the African National Congress, now the ruling party, should only take a defensive position. Then he used the moral high ground to force the apartheid regime out of power. Eventually, he would encourage his fellow black South Africans to see their former tormentors as their “partners.”
In the Anishinaabe culture, we are taught two things that I think are relevant here. One is that when people undergo a great hardship, they obtain a certain spiritual power from surviving the ordeal. The other is that we are taught to shake hands with people like this in the hope that some of that power might rub off on us. This is why you sometimes see long lines at a powwow of people waiting to shake hands with a cancer survivor or grieving widow.
The world is filled with seemingly intractable dilemmas: from conflicts in the Middle East to the reconciliation between Canada and Anishinaabe people here at home. It is sometimes tempting to throw up our hands and say something like, “If only we had a Mandela, then we could solve this.” However, as the world turns its attention to this man once again and honours him, this a chance for us to shake hands with him in a metaphoric sense. We should remind ourselves of what he did for his people, for all South Africans and indeed, all of humanity.
Perhaps then some of his power will rub off on us, too.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 4, 2013 C3