The death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's anti-apartheid hero and former president, is being mourned by many in Manitoba, including those who have met him.


Former South African president Nelson Mandela, seen in this 2010 photograph, died on Thursday at the age of 95. (Alexander Joe/Reuters)

Mandela passed away peacefully at his home in Johannesburg on Thursday, following a prolonged lung infection. He was 95 years old.

"Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father," South African President Jacob Zuma said in announcing Mandela's death.

Strini Reddy, a longtime anti-apartheid activist who grew up in South Africa and currently lives in Winnipeg, said he met Mandela in 1991 and noted "how gracious he was."

"What an imposing but very kind and calm gentleman he was. He was everything I thought he was, really," Reddy told CBC News.

"The most important thing I remember about him is that he said to me, 'Don't forget to thank the Canadians for their role in helping us gain freedom.'"

Another Winnipegger, Stella LeJohn, said she lived five doors down from Mandela in Soweto in the 1950s.

"Some people are just put in this world for one thing, and he was put in this world for … just that one thing: of working for people and liberating South Africa, self-sacrificing in every possible way," she said.

Stella LeJohn

Stella LeJohn of Winnipeg says she lived five doors down from Mandela in Soweto in the 1950s. She hopes to return to South Africa for his funeral. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

LeJohn said her neighbour was often in trouble with the authorities, as his fight against apartheid began when he was young.

Mandela even had to crawl along rooftops to sneak home to visit his family, she recalled.

"He had such a sense of humour, you know, despite all of the problems that they were giving him — in and out of jail, his family was being harassed … it was unbelievable," she said.

LeJohn said she will mourn Mandela's death with family in South Africa, and she'd like to be there for his funeral.

Reddy said Mandela's death begins a long grieving process for people who were part of the anti-apartheid movement.

Moment of silence

In the Manitoba legislature, MLAs observed a moment of silence to mark Mandela's passing on Thursday afternoon.

"Freedom has lost one of its greatest modern-day heroes, but his vision and his example will not be forgotten," Premier Greg Selinger said in a statement.

"Manitobans join with South Africans in mourning the passing of the irreplaceable Nelson Mandela."

A book of condolences will be available to sign in the lobby of the Manitoba legislature starting at 8 a.m. Friday.

As well, the provincial government has set up a web page for those who want to pay tribute to Mandela online.

Legacy extends to Canada: Axworthy

University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign affairs minister, described Mandela as an "extraordinary leader and champion of peace."

Axworthy noted that Mandela's "legacy of truth-telling and reconciliation as a process of national healing," has extended beyond South Africa.

"Rwanda has embarked on its own process of reconciliation. Canada has also started the process of addressing its history of residential schools through the recording of oral testimonies by those affected by the residential school experience and the establishment of Canada’s own Truth and Reconciliation Commission," he said in a release.

The University of Winnipeg's Global College has sent students to South Africa in 2011 and 2013 to learn about the history of apartheid and the role of reconciliation.

Social media reaction

As soon as Mandela's death was announced, many took to social media to express their condolences and share their thoughts. Check out a sampling of the online reaction: