Special feature: My improbable encounter with Nelson Mandela

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 56, No. 1, January February 2014, Pages 35,39 News&Notes

Nelson Mandela’s eyes are filled with calm and purpose: a benevolent, steady determination that occupies the space between us. His brilliant, endless smile radiates the unmistakable joy of existence—an unquenchable spirit. As his hand squeezes mine, his grip is firm and strong, that of a much younger man with much work still to do.

To my complete amazement I hear him thanking me: “Thank you to all the people of Canada. They have shown great leadership in the struggle against apartheid.” This is all impossible; neither of us is supposed to be here—I’m an imposter, and he is a fragile and ill-appearing old man who has been released from imprisonment by the South African apartheid regime.

Our meeting occurred in late 1990. A final-year UBC medical student inspired by the heroism of anti-apartheid activists, I was on an obstetrical elective in a black hospital in Durban. My partner Stephanie took to the pediatric wards caring for black infants, many near death from completely preventable illnesses. Surrounded daily by the overwhelming, horrific health consequences and human suffering imposed by the apartheid system, we were educated and mentored by resilient and courageous South African medical colleagues of all ethnic backgrounds. They were enormously excited about the upcoming African National Congress (ANC) convention to be held in Johannesburg. This would be the first legal meeting of the ANC in the country, and they urged me to attend to witness history in the making. They were passionate and categorical: “You must attend.”

A long, storm-buffeted car journey brought us to a ramshackle conference facility on the outskirts of Soweto. Excitement, song, dance, and uncertainty pulsated in the air around us. We rushed forward to enter the facility, only to be stopped at the door by imposing security guards, who requested that we present our delegate passes. 

“Only elected party delegates are allowed to enter,” we were told sternly. All appeals rebuffed, crestfallen at this missed chance of a lifetime, we turned to head back to Durban, hearts heavy with our failure. How could we have known that this failure would change our lives forever?

At that moment a sign improbably beckoned to us: Press Room. Several deep breaths later, sweating, hearts near-exploding, we brazenly and fraudulently presented ourselves as freelance Canadian reporters to the inexperienced volunteer press credential coordinators. Our story was buttressed only by our passports. They scrutinized us briefly, but their uncertainty was overcome by goodwill—we were in!

Dazed, we were quickly photographed for press passes, and soon our trembling hands clutched the treasured laminated cards and we found ourselves in the front row of the convention, sitting shoulder to shoulder with the world’s media to hear the speeches of Mr Mandela and other ANC leaders. Later, our still-unsteady legs supported us as we turned to see Mr Mandela bearing down on us for that handshake. He flaunted time and age, unleashing the benevolent and compassionate life force improbably stored in his frail-looking frame—a life force perhaps even strengthened through his imprisonment. He moved ahead relentlessly, much as he did in driving his nation’s long walk to freedom.

In 2000 I returned to South Africa as an HIV physician—a path inspired by that chance meeting 10 years earlier. The World AIDS Conference in Durban was a turning point in South Africa coming to terms with its AIDS pandemic, and in correcting the misguided policies of Thabo Mbeki, Mr Mandela’s successor. As Mr Mandela—Madiba—was introduced at the conclusion of the meeting, a soaring choir of joyous ululation and adulation erupted; voices from all corners of the globe rose in unison, celebrating and thanking him. Another incredible South African, the brilliant physician and antiapartheid activist Hoosen Coovadia, introduced him simply as “the greatest man to ever bestride the earth.”

As we say goodbye to Nelson Mandela and give thanks for his life, let us all ensure that every child, every person on this earth knows his name, and finds hope and inspiration in his accomplishments.


Dr Chris Fraser practises inner-city medicine at the Cool Aid Community Health Centre in Victoria, with a focus on people living with HIV and hepatitis C. He is also a volunteer physician for the Canada Africa Community Health Alliance (www.cacha.ca) at an HIV clinic in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania.

Chris Fraser, MD,. Special feature: My improbable encounter with Nelson Mandela. BCMJ, Vol. 56, No. 1, January, February, 2014, Page(s) 35,39 - News&Notes.

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