Maclean’s archives: Mandela’s three-city visit to Canada

This tour of Canada offered Canadians the rare chance to see a legend

<p>Nelson Mandela greets people as he walks with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on his arrival in Ottawa, ON June 17, 1990 for a three-day visit to Canada. (The Canadian Press/Wm. DeKay)</p>

Nelson Mandela greets people as he walks with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney on his arrival in Ottawa, ON June 17, 1990 for a three-day visit to Canada. (The Canadian Press/Wm. DeKay)

From the Maclean’s archives, July 2, 1990: Greg W. Taylor and Chris Erasmus reflect on Nelson Mandela’s three-city tour of Canada: 

At each Canadian stop, the crowds greeted Nelson Mandela more like a rock star than a foreign politician. In Toronto last week, at the largest rally of his three-city visit, a racially mixed crowd of about 30,000 endured sweltering heat outside the Ontario legislature to sing, cheer and chant his name even before he spoke. One jubilant fan held up a banner proclaiming Mandela “King of Africa.” Even seasoned politicians, who accorded the 71-year-old deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC) red-carpet treatment normally reserved for heads of state, were visibly moved. Premier David Peterson introduced him as “the conscience of South Africa and the world.” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who had invited Mandela and his wife, Winnie, to Canada and sent a government jet to London to pick them up, called him “an authentic hero.” To show his support, Mulroney also pledged $5 million to help repatriate South African exiles and to reintegrate political prisoners into their communities.

Mulroney’s donation was the latest demonstration of Canada’s long-standing opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime. At a 1,500-guest dinner that Mulroney hosted in Toronto, Mandela remarked that it had been “a source of wonder” that Canadian governments had spoken out against apartheid for so long (Prime Minister John Diefenbaker denounced it in 1961), despite the fact that Canada is “so many thousands of miles away.” In fact, a former senior member of the Canadian mission in South Africa told Maclean’s that, over the past 10 years, Canada has been officially represented at every major black funeral and anti-apartheid demonstration in that country. Edward Lee, Canadian ambassador to South Africa from 1983 to 1986, often angered the Pretoria government because of his anti-apartheid activities. And at a protest demonstration in 1988, Cape Town police turned a water cannon on Beverley MacLean, the wife of current ambassador Ronald MacLean, and briefly detained her.

In Ottawa, before travelling on to Toronto and Montreal as part of a world fund-raising tour for the ANC, Mandela received a rare invitation for a non-head of state to address a joint session of Parliament. He gratefully acknowledged Canada’s role in urging other countries, including the United States, Japan and the Commonwealth nations, to pressure the white-minority Pretoria government by enforcing economic sanctions. Altogether, Mandela said, sanctions and international criticism have helped force changes in South African laws at the same time that they helped end his 27-year imprisonment in February.

But Mandela warned that “the apartheid system is still in place,” and added that “the police continue to kill and maim opponents of that system.” He repeatedly called for the continuation of sanctions until apartheid is totally dismantled – a call that Mulroney publicly endorsed.

For thousands of admirers, Mandela’s visit was a rare chance to see a living legend. Joyce Ziyane-Graham, 49, who said that she had known Mandela when she lived in South Africa, screamed and wept as she watched him step off the plane in Ottawa. “I never believed I would see him alive again,” she told Maclean’s. Stephanie Searle, 16, who went to Ottawa with a group of students from Guelph, Ont., said that catching even a brief glimpse of Mandela made her cry with joy. “It was just so moving to actually see him,” she said, tears still in her eyes. And 75-year-old Helen Cram of Toronto said that Mandela was “like Gandhi.” She added that the fact that Mandela survived in prison for so long, and kept both his sanity and his ideals, proved that he “is somebody very special.”

Meanwhile, as Mandela’s tour made headlines in the Western press, South African President F. W. (Frederik) de Klerk took the opportunity to direct the world spotlight back home onto himself and his National Party with a well-timed series of deft political moves. Just as Mandela landed in Europe three weeks ago, de Klerk announced the ending of the controversial four-year-old state of emergency in three of four provinces. And last week, with Mandela in Toronto, the National Party-dominated parliament voted to scrap the Separate Amenities Act, a law for racially segregated use of public facilities. Those changes led de Klerk’s chief negotiator, Gerrit Viljoen, to boast that the government itself had become “part of the anti-apartheid struggle.”

Despite those advances, however, Mandela gave no sign that he was ready to ease his campaign against the Pretoria government. Although he repeatedly praised de Klerk for his commitment to the “fundamental political transformation of our country,” Mandela ended the Canadian portion of his tour declaring that he remained far from satisfied that apartheid was finished. “I had no vote when I went to prison 27 years ago,” he told a rain-soaked but ecstatic crowd of 20,000 outside Montreal’s city hall, “and I still have no vote.” For South Africa’s black majority of 28 million, attaining that constitutional right remains the ultimate challenge.