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My Brush With Madiba... At a Soccer Game

01/14/2014 05:23 EST | Updated 03/16/2014 05:59 EDT

There are times in life you expect to be unforgettable -- your wedding or the birth of your kids.

And then there are those rare, unforeseeable occasions that take on larger-than-expected significance and stand out in your memory.

For me, one such moment took place in 1994 when I went to visit my transplanted sister in South Africa.

My sister had moved to Johannesburg after university to work for the ANC in the late 80s. She fell in love with a black South African, and had given birth to their firstborn son only months after Nelson Mandela had been elected as the country's first black president. They lived in a mixed neighbourhood called Yeoville, where their bi-colour marriage was accepted (partially, at least). The new South Africa had been born, but it was as fragile and hope-filled as my newborn nephew.

In 1994, I made the journey to see them.

Not long after my arrival, I asked my soccer-loving brother-in-law Nyana, born and raised in Soweto, to take me to a soccer game at Ellis Park: South Africa vs Cameroon. After having been banned by FIFA for so many years, this was a grand occasion for South Africa. What's more, the legendary Roger Milla was to play for the Indomitable Lions.

During our walk to the field (which later became known for the rugby match of Invictus fame), I began to notice that this was nothing like attending a mid-season hockey game at Maple Leaf Gardens. For one thing, I was surrounded by an entourage of Nyana's beefy mates. As we passed through the turnstiles I realized why: I was the only white guy in a stadium of 20,000 (save for a lone fullback on Bafana Bafana). The big, burly guys surrounding me were security detail for a hapless, pale Canadian.

You see, soccer was a black-man's sport in 1994, much the way rugby was reserved for the white minority. I couldn't have stood out more in the crowd -- or, as it turned out, been more welcome.

Optimism for the new South Africa was palpable that day. Castle lagers flowed freely into my hands, sent to me from far and wide. The fans were thrilled and a bit surprised to welcome me into their sport and talk -- briefly, one eye always fixed on the match -- about how their country was improving, about how maybe I wouldn't be the last white guy to come and enjoy their game.

Then, in the midst of the sporty revelry, every single person throughout the stadium suddenly stopped watching the game. With the natural, unspoken orchestration of a flock of migrating birds shifting course in mid-flight, like a well-rehearsed wave at a baseball game, everyone spontaneously stood up and turned around, backs to the game. Though the two teams played on, all eyes were turned to the press box high above. All at once the crowd began to sway and sing, in perfect unison, a haunting African anthem. The cry was deafening, and glorious.

Why was everyone singing, ignoring the game as it played on below us? Word had spread like wildfire through the bleachers; Nyana whispered it to me, reverentially: Madiba's in the press box. Without even seeing him, the mere rumour of his presence spreading throughout the crowd, a stadium full of black South Africans rose in a chorus to sing tribute, to pay respects to their leader.

I have no idea if the man eulogized by Dr Maya Angelou last month as South Africa's "David...Man of strength Gideon", was actually in the press box that hot, sunny day at Ellis Park. But I believe he was. I could feel it in the pride his perceived presence stirred to a melodious roar.

As I thought back on that experience during the period of global mourning after Mandela's death, I couldn't help but reflect that however unlikely a moment that was, it would be even more so here in Canada. Canadians wouldn't even stand up for most of their political leaders; they certainly wouldn't turn their backs on a hockey game. And I can't blame them. Our leaders, for the most part, are part of a cynical, morally-challenged industry of politics, an intricate game whose sole purpose is to stay in the game, Survivor-like.

I wonder what it must have been like to have such faith in a leader's moral compass. What it must have been like to know the person guiding them had their best interests at heart, and not his own.

I don't envy the agonizing struggle South Africans have endured, but I do envy the reverence they held -- and hold -- for their Madiba. And I feel blessed to have had a small brush with his greatness, whether he was actually there or not.

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