Mandela’s memorable visit to Port-of-Spain
By Clint Chan Tack Friday, December 6 2013
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Nelson Mandela meets a schoolgirl at Hilton Trinidad. Also in photo is former FIFA vice president Jack Warner....
THE visit of former South African president Nelson Mandela to this country was one of the most memorable visits by a foreign dignitary in recent memory. Mandela, 95, died yesterday at his Johannesburg home in South Africa.
Time seemed to stand still at Piarco International Airport on the night of April 29, 2004 when he arrived in this country. Mandela, who was 86 at the time, alighted from his private jet and set foot on local soil at 10.06 pm. He was greeted by then Prime Minister Patrick manning and then FIFA vice-president and Concacaf president Jack Warner.
From as early as 8.30 pm, there was a flurry of activity at the airport as members of the TT Regiment hastily laid out the red carpet and secured a section of the tarmac for the arrival of Mandela’s jet. Manning and his wife Hazel (then Education Minister) arrived at Piarco at 9.18 pm, fresh from an official reception at President’s House where South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu was the guest of honour. Mandela’s late arrival prevented him from attending that reception.
The arrival of a private jet at 9.30 pm caused the media personnel to think this was Mandela’s plane. However that aircraft belonged to FIFA president Sepp Blatter who was escorted by Warner to the terminal. A key reason for Mandela’s visit in 2004 was to encourage Concacaf to support South Africa’s bid to host the 2010 World Cup. Yesterday, Blatter, in a statement, hailed Mandela as “probably one of the greatest humanists of our time.” “Nelson Mandela will stay in our hearts forever,” Blatter said.
On April 30, 2004, addressing a luncheon held in his honour at the Hilton Trinidad, St Ann’s, Mandela said before he became president on May 10, 1994, there were no women in South Africa’s government or cabinet. Explaining that he appointed eight women to important posts in his Cabinet, Mandela observed, “I went around South Africa when I introduced the idea. I said we have now taken a decision to treat men and women on the same basis.”
Mandela further stated, “ Unless we accept equality between all sexes, all genders, we will never be able to progress properly. That lesson is now sinking in and being accepted by the decision makers in many parts of the world.” On the same day, Mandela was praised by over 20,000 people who shouted “Madiba! Madiba!” at a rally held at the Queen’s Park Oval.
With incredible modesty, Mandela thanked the crowd and told them, “I came for two reasons because I love you very much and because it is not easy to love an old man. So I urge you to love South Africa and this old man.” The only regret which Mandela appeared to have during his visit was not being able to meet then West Indies captain Brian Lara. Mandela asked ,“where is Lara?” when he arrived in TT on April 29. Lara, who met Mandela when the West Indies toured South Africa in 1993, later said he was devastated he could not meet Mandela who was his hero. Warner blamed the West Indies Cricket Board for Lara’s inability to meet Mandela.
The death of Mandela’s first wife Evelyn Maise, caused him to cut his visit short and he left on May 1. Before leaving, Mandela thanked Manning for “an enjoyable stay” and expressed his “deep disappointment” about being unable to visit Tobago. Mandela’s visit to Trinidad was his last international trip, as he stopped overseas travel, spending his last decade home in his beloved South Africa.