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Long Walk of Prisoner #46664 Part 1: Honouring Greatness

12/05/2013 04:53 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

This is the first chapter in Tim Knight's three-part tribute to the late Nelson Mandela. Read part 2 here. Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

It's 15 years ago: November 14, 1998.

Toronto's enormous SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre), cathedral of Our Lords of Sport, slowly fills with children. Forty-five thousand of them. Some formal in private school uniforms, most in jeans and sneakers.

They file in, school by school by school. Harassed teachers herd them to roped-off spaces on the brilliant green artificial grass floor, struggle to keep them neatly inside the ropes.

On this day, SkyDome is the world's largest classroom.

CBC cameras turn on. Picture and sound go live throughout Canada and 8,000 miles across the Atlantic all the way to South Africa.

Music blares. A cart glides in from the side of the arena. Sitting on it are former South African president Nelson Mandela and his new wife, Graca Machel.

The SkyDome goes crazy. Forty-five thousand children, most white, stand and cheer respect for this old black man, this ex-terrorist, ex-freedom fighter, this ex-convict from a faraway country.

"Mandela" they shout. And "We love you."

The cheers continue for long, long minutes as the cart pushes through the crowd to the stage.

The old black man climbs stiffly off the cart. His wife helps him up the steps to the stage. The roar of the children echoes around the dome. He stands at the microphone beaming, delighted, waving, waiting for the roar to die and the children to sit.

He finally asks in his soft Xhosa accent: "Why is it that over 200 million children under the age of five are malnourished in this day and age?

"Why do millions of people still not have electricity and clean water when the nations of the world can produce so much wealth?

"Why are people still dying from diseases that modern science can cure?

"All this can be changed if ordinary people like you and me act together."

In a great wave of emotion, the children cheer agreement.

Mandela, 79, is making these children his equals. They cheer so loud and so long that he puts his notes down, smiles beatifically, like a loving grandfather, has to wait for quiet again.

When he can be heard, he thanks the children: "You have made me feel like a young man again."

Mandela's words are not particularly stirring in themselves. Any speaker could have said the same things and been politely applauded and just as politely forgotten.

But would huge world audiences -- much less 45,000 mostly white Toronto children -- have flocked to listen and applaud words like these from anyone but the legend that is Nelson Mandela?

Then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien speaks: "When you will be my age, you will tell your grandchildren 'I was there when Nelson Mandela came to Canada and Toronto.'"

Music plays. Mandela does his famous Madiba shuffle, proves again that not all black people have rhythm.

Watching from the stands, I feel tears start in my eyes. I glance at son Derek sitting next to me. He brushes something off his cheek, sniffs.

I ask Derek what he's thinking. "He tells the truth," says my son. "It's awesome."

"Ecstatic students ... electric ... thrilling", writes the Toronto Star.

The Toronto Sunreports: "Overwhelming ... even in the press box there was hardly a dry eye."

Maclean'shopes: "May his magic linger."

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Eight years earlier Prisoner #46664 walks through the gates of Viktor Verster Prison outside Cape Town into the hot sun of freedom.

He raises his clenched fist in the African National Congress (ANC) salute. He is smiling, joyous, victorious.

"Amandla" (power) he shouts to the crowd. It's not a threat. It's a promise. "Amandla" and again "Amandla".

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is the world's most famous revolutionary. For 27 long years until this sunny day in 1990 he's a myth, locked up in white South Africa's brutal prisons.

Now, suddenly, he's real. Against all odds, alive and free.

On this day, the man who was myth becomes instant legend.

Millions around the world, many in tears, watch on live TV as Mandela takes the last steps on his very, very long walk to freedom, to national hero and international statesman.

Later this same day, he speaksto the world and a delirious Cape Town crowd: "I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.

"Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today.

"I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands."

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A few months later, Nelson Mandela is in Dublin to accept the freedom of the city.

Now he has the right to pasture sheep within the city's boundaries. Along with the duty to own a bow, a coat of mail, a helmet and a sword.

I'm in Dublin at the same time to train TV journalists at Ireland's public broadcaster, RTÉ. I take the afternoon off to join a long reception line meeting Mandela at Dublin City Hall.

(Thirty years earlier I'm a very young newspaper reporter in South Africa when Mandela, legendary as the Black Pimpernel, goes underground to fight for his people's freedom. I'm fascinated by his cause, his famous integrity and his courage. But he's betrayed and arrested before I can ever get to meet him.)

This day in Dublin, Mandela shakes my hand.

2013-12-08-mandela.jpg

Knight with Nelson Mandela at the former South African president's 81st birthday celebration. The picture was taken outside the house where Mandela died last week. Johannesburg, July 18, 2001.

It's a most peculiar moment. I look into his eyes, he looks into mine, and somehow I know I'm in the presence of sheer, bloody greatness. Not because of what he's done or had done to him, but simply because of who he is.

Absurdly, I don't want to disappoint this man I don't know.

I know instinctively that he's a better man than me. I want to follow him. I want him to lead me, inspire me. I want to go with him on some shining, magnificent, impossible mission, have him call me to some great and noble cause.

I want to be Mandela's man.

He smiles that warm, embracing Mandela smile, murmurs something I can't remember afterwards and I have to move along, uncalled.

In fact though, one way or another, nobody who meets Mandela ever stays uncalled.

In the square outside Dublin city hall Mandela makes a speech about human rights and democracy and five thousand pink and white Irish people clench their fists in the ANC salute and shout "Amandla."

And many weep.

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In the second of three parts to come, Mandela campaigns for the presidency of South Africa, is elected and shows a remarkably humble side.

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NELSON MANDELA IN CANADA