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 of Europe and North America.
During these visits, among the many state leaders and others he saw, Mandela specifically wanted to meet with Jewish leaders. It was no secret that many Jews in South Africa were among the few whites who were strong and keen activists within the anti-apartheid movement, and Mandela very much wanted to show his gratitude by meeting with Jewish leaders wherever his travels took him.
Nonetheless, it was still very much a surprise when I came to my office at Canadian Jewish Congress early that morning on June 20 to receive a phone call from the head of Mandela's Canadian visit, asking if we could bring a small delegation to meet with Mandela at his Royal York Hotel suite for that afternoon.
With only a few hours to prepare, I simply did not have the time to contemplate the historic and unique opportunity I would be participating in. I immediately got in touch with then-Canadian Jewish Congress president Les Scheininger and chair of the executive Moshe Ronen. Along with my colleague, Manuel Prutschi, we made our way downtown for our rendezvous with this most prominent of world champions.
We were met in the lobby of the hotel and ushered into 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 quite 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 and introduced us to his wife, Winnie. A short time later, another guest joined us, then-minister of external affairs Joe Clark. At any other time, to meet Clark would have been a huge honour in itself. That day, Clark, like our delegation, was in awe of this man of conscience.
We probably spent 25 minutes talking with 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. In the many years I worked with CJC, I had the great privilege of meeting kings and presidents, philosophers and Nobel laureates, however, 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.
As we say in our tradition, may his memory be for a blessing.
In his capacity as then-associate director of community relations of Canadian Jewish Congress, Bernie M. Farber met Nelson Mandela on June 20 ,1990.