Nelson Mandela’s life in South Africa was largely defined by his race, but as local residents mourned one of the great figures of the 20th century it was his gentleness and humanity that defined him.
Because of him a lot of things changed in my life, said South African native Neel Singh, who met Mandela in 2000.
I was a little bit of a troublemaker. I was part of the ANC and the whole freedom movement.
I had a lot of animosity built up in me, but he inspired me to do right. I predicated my life on that.
His power to forgive is what strikes me most. Hes a symbol to all of us that we are one.
The 41-year-old Singh, who moved to Canada at 18 with his family and is now an engineer for Valiant Tool, met Mandela as part of an event for the former South African presidents childrens foundation in Johannesburg.
He earned the opportunity after winning a world karate championship in the colours of his adopted home.
Hes so charismatic, Singh recalled. His teaching and language was simple.
He said to me, Its good to be humble, its very important. Its also very important not to play small in the world.
He was telling me to have a vision and set goals because without goals you cannot achieve anything.
Howard McCurdy, who became a trailblazer himself as the NDP’s first African-Canadian MP in 1984, met Mandela twice.
His memory will move large, McCurdy said. I don’t think anyone in the 20th century carries more symbolism than Nelson Mandela did.
For a man of such stature and symbolism, he was so modest in his demeanor.
McCurdy said watching Mandela’s walk to freedom after 27 years of imprisonment is an image indelibly burned into his memory.
While the 81-year-old McCurdy greatly admires Mandela’s tenacity and courage in defeating the forces of racial prejudice and then being able to patch together the Rainbow Nation without bloodshed and violence, those achievements arent what strikes him as being Mandela’s most impressive qualities.
His pure humanity, McCurdy said.
As much as he was a combatant of apartheid, he never lost the basic notion that humanity is one. He sensed the survival of all of us depended on being able to transcend the differences.
He was an extraordinary symbol of the possibilities of racial reconciliation.
Windsor native Gaetano Calarco experienced just how approachable and modest Mandela was when he bumped into him in a Johannesburg hotel in 1991.
Ive been to 90 countries and met a lot of people, but Ive never met anyone else like him, said Calarco, who admitted he broke into tears upon hearing of Mandela’s death.
I asked if I could shake his hand and get a picture together.
Mandela obliged and his bodyguard snapped a photo. However, Calarco noticed the flash hadn’t gone off after Mandela disappeared up the escalator.
He cheekily followed and asked Mandela’s bodyguard if he could have a second shot taken after Mandela came out of his meeting.
When he came out he was happy to do it again, Calarco said. The bodyguard was fumbling with the camera and it took five minutes.
The whole time, Mandela never let go of my hand. He was so friendly, laughing and talking.
I was so nervous, Id be lying if I said I talked much.
Mandela often left a tumult of emotions in his wake.
Former Windsor mayor John Millson was on the podium at Tiger Stadium for Mandela’s 1990 speech in Detroit shortly after his release by the South African government.
He was a gentle giant in the world, Millson said. He was such a great icon, yet so humble.
You cant imagine the personal suffering he endured. How can one man deal with the pain and suffering and still have that faith?
Yet his whole message that day, there wasn’t one ounce of anger or bitterness.