Sunday April 20, 2014

Mandela was an 'incredible leader'

Kamloops residents with South African connections react to death of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is being remembered in Kamloops as the most powerful influence for a just society since Mahatma Gandhi.

Several locals with strong connections to South Africa made the comparison following news of Mandela’s death on Thursday.

Despite widespread knowledge of his protracted illness, the death of the 95-year-old former president of South Africa still came as a blow to those who admired him.

“I’m a little bit shocked at the moment,” said Jeremy Cooke upon learning of the news. “It’s quite emotional to hear it.”

Born in Vancouver and raised in South Africa from the age of two, Cooke now works as an engineer in Kamloops.

He called Mandela an “incredible leader” for taking a path towards reconciliation when he could easily have gone the route of dictatorship as seen in many other African nations.

South Africa’s first black president spent 27 years as a prisoner of apartheid, the system of white racist rule that he described as evil.

But his steadfast determination to realize his vision of a country where all races work in harmony led to the defeat of his oppressors and his election as president — all while inspiring the world.

“My only regret is that he wasn’t released (from prison) earlier because if he’d been in power when he was younger,” said Cooke. “South Africa would’ve been a totally different place, just thriving.”

Logan Lake’s Dr. Uzair Sheik, who returns to his home in South Africa early next year, said his thoughts were with his fellow countrymen on Thursday.

“It will be a tremendous loss. He’s been like a grandfather to the South African community across all racial groups for the past 50 years.”

Sheik was 18 years old during the post-apartheid transition of power of the mid-1990s and remembers the fear of violence that accompanied the monumental time. Mandela helped the country get through the turmoil, he said.

“There was a lot of paranoia . . . that the country was going to down and go the route of Zimbabwe,” said Sheik. “I think he was the biggest figure to prevent that. And now South Africa is one of those really dynamic powerhouses of Africa economically and terms of political influence.”

Sheik, who identifies as a member of the underprivileged Indian South African community, remembers Mandela most for his determination to bring tolerance across all racial groups.

“His famous saying was he wanted to create a rainbow nation.”

City of Kamloops councillor Arjun Singh served as an international election observer in South Africa when Mandela was elected president in 1994.

“I feel really blessed to be a very, very small part of what was happening there,” he said.

In his role, he encountered top political allies to Mandela who recounted how gracious and humble the man was during face-to-face meetings.

“He would serve the tea and he would be the one who allowed others the opportunity to express how they felt,” said Singh. 

Singh also heard Mandela speak and remembers how universally loved he was and how dedicated he was to building bridges between communities.

“By his very life, he lit a trail for those who choose to follow it of integrity, honesty and real humanity and humour.”

Singh said he hopes Mandela’s legacy will influence provincial and federal politicians who, these days, appear more focused on tearing down those who disagree with their positions.

“He even had people who had put him in jail in his first government,” said Singh. “It’s like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela . . . Can someone like that exist in this age? I hope so. And I think he gives that example.”

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