South African family reflects on passing of world leader
Okotoks: Malcolm Duncan twice met Nelson Mandela
By: Bruce Campbell
| Posted: Friday, Dec 06, 2013 05:48 pm
An Okotoks resident was in his native South Africa when he received word of Nelson Mandela’s death — a man he met on two occasions.
However, Malcolm Duncan wasn’t mourning, he was celebrating the life of an incredible leader who changed his country and the world.
Mandela passed away Thursday at the age of 95. He spent 27 years in prison — 18 of those in the infamous Robben Island prison — on charges of treason against the then apartheid government in 1963. He was released in 1990 and became the country’s first black president, serving from 1994-1999.
“People are celebrating— there are very few tears,” said the 57-year-old Duncan in an interview Friday from South Africa. “Everybody realizes that we have a common father — regardless of race, colour or creed. Everybody loved this man, bar nobody.”
Duncan met Mandela twice in the early 2000s before moving to Canada in 2005 and eventually Okotoks in 2007.
“We were fortunate to sit next to him during a business meeting in Johannesburg,” Duncan said. “Like every person says, he was the most phenomenal person. When he spoke to you, he spoke directly to you.”
Duncan also met Mandela when helping to establish a breast cancer clinic in Soweto.
He now has an extensive collection of Mandela memorabilia at his Okotoks home.
Duncan grew up in South Africa while Mandela was imprisoned. However, unlike most of the world, he was not aware of the plight of Mandela due to censorship and South Africans not having television until the 1970s.
“There was no hate because we were so unaware because we had no idea of what was going on behind the scenes,” Duncan said. “The whole South African public knew he had been sent to jail for terrorism, but we didn’t see the true picture… I really didn’t know much about him.”
He called it ironic Canadians likely knew more about the plight of South Africans than those living in the country.
He said feelings of Mandela being a terrorist went away quickly upon his release in 1990.
“Within a year, he had won the hearts of most people,” he said.
Although Mandela’s release was celebrated in 1990 his presidency was marred by a sharp decline in the country’s economy, which has continued today.
“There was a honeymoon period when he was president,” he said. “The reality is we were worried about South Africa’s future.”
The Duncans left South Africa due to the high crime rate plaguing some parts of the country. His home was broken into and his family was robbed.
Malcolm’s son Douglas came to Canada with his family at the age of 21.
“It’s sad,” Douglas said of Mandela’s passing. “He came out of prison after 27 years without holding a grudge against the white people — for him to rule with equality is absolutely phenomenal.”
Douglas saw the attitudes of South Africans change while growing up.
“It’s interesting because one side of my family was extremely racist and my other side had a lot of compassion for the black people,” he said.
He recalls having a best friend as a child who was black whom he would play with in spite of the attitude some in the community had towards his friendship.
“At the time in South Africa, there were people who would frown upon that,” he said. “It was bittersweet. There was some good and bad in South Africa.” Mandela’s release and his compassion helped change attitudes in South Africa.
“Over the period of time, through all the efforts Nelson Mandela created, it changed the opinions of many people,” he said. “For people growing up with people saying to them ‘Hey black people are like this or like that and for them to say later: ‘Hey that was wrong,’ is phenomenal.
“That is the impact. For one person to change a nation’s perspective and understanding is phenomenal.”
Douglas recognized Mandela was connected with organizations accused of bombings in South Africa in the early 1960s, but he admired his leadership and accomplishments nonetheless.
“I think the greatest of leaders have always had some type of blood on their hands,” he said. “I think it is hard for us to say that was wrong. It was a different period of time.”
He considered Mandela a man of peace despite his association with some questionable organizations early on.
“I have the utmost respect for him,” he said. “There was a saying that if aliens would ever come to Earth, Mandela would be the ambassador for Earth.
“He is such a neutral man who used his words to make things better. He didn’t use forceful conflict.”
Douglas’ father shares that compassion.
“I don’t think anybody has a bad word to say about him since he came out of prison and decided to serve South Africa,” Duncan said. “One of his first speeches, he said. ‘You are not here to serve me, I am here to serve you.’
“That was just phenomenal.”