Next week Barack Obama will give the annual Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg to commemorate the centenary of the birth of South Africa’s first post-apartheid leader. South Africans will be exhorted “to find the Mandela in each of us” while scores of business leaders and media celebrities are spending a night inside the prison cells on Robben Island — where Mandela spent the majority of his 27 year incarceration — to raise funds for good causes.
Many Jews in South Africa will recall the life and times of Nelson Mandela because he attempted to bring harmony to South Africa’s diverse communities through the healing of past wounds. Mandela even put on a kosher lunch for the zealous prosecutor at his trial in 1963, Percy Yutar, an Orthodox Jew and president of the United Hebrew Congregation in Johannesburg. In 1998 42 per cent of South African Jews stated that they were likely to stay in the new South Africa. By 2006 after Mandela’s tenure as president, this figure rose to 79%, but may be lower today after former President Zuma’s misrule.
Mandela and other leaders of the struggle against apartheid crossed paths with Jews early on in their careers because they were lawyers who used the courtroom to fight for black rights and against discriminatory legislation. Mandela was famously hired by Lazar Skidelsky as a legal clerk in his first job in the 1940s. The Pan-Africanist Congress leader, Robert Sobukwe, similarly studied law while banished to the town of Kimberley. The journalist, Benjamin Pogrund, was in regular correspondence with Sobukwe during his previous six years on Robben Island and sent him works on Judaism by Leo Baeck and Martin Buber. Pogrund was also the first non-family member to visit Mandela in Pollsmoor prison — yet in the early days, at the height of the anti-apartheid regime, he was kept at arms’ length by many in the Jewish community.
The disproportionate number of Jews involved in anti-apartheid activities worried the communal leadership. At the Treason trial in 1956, half the whites arrested were Jews. Defendants in other political trials with names such as Yetta Barenblatt and Hymie Barsel, rekindled the pre-war anti-Jewish sentiment of Afrikaners nationalists. The defense counsel at the Treason trial was the communal leader, Israel Maisels while one of the prosecutors was Oswald Pirow, a leading nationalist and Nazi sympathiser in the 1930s. When Mandela and the leadership of Umkonto we sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, were arrested, most of the whites apprehended were Jews.
Privately liberal and consistent voters for Helen Suzman, the Jewish and often sole defender of human rights in the South African parliament, communal leaders projected an external policy of non-interference when it came to apartheid. Despite harsh criticism from many Jews, they believed that they could somehow weather the storm. It was only in 1985 that the Board of Deputies in South Africa first admonished the propagators of apartheid.
Many ordinary members of the community desired stability and a quiet life while trying to deal with the contradictions raised by Jewish tradition and history for someone living under apartheid. There were exceptions such as the outspoken orthodox rabbi, Louis Rabinowitz and the progressive rabbi, Arthur Super. Others, often more assimilated and acculturated Jews, such as Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Ronnie Kasrils and Sam Kahn joined the Communist party to fight apartheid. Courageous in their beliefs, critical of Zionism while turning a blind eye to Stalin’s crimes, they often occupied pivotal positions in the ANC. The Israeli academic and chronicler of Jewish life in South Africa, Gideon Shimoni, has written about the “double marginality” of such figures — alienated from both the Jewish community and white society.
Such problems became more accentuated in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. At this time Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, were strongly cultivating newly emergent African nations. In October 1961, Eric Louw, the South African Foreign Minister, spoke at the UN — and the Liberian delegate asked for it to be struck from the record. When it came to a vote, the UK and its allies abstained — only the Netherlands and Israel voted in favour. Louw then warned that “South African citizens who have racial and religious ties with Israel would also disapprove of the hostile and ungrateful action of Israel”.
Just before the outbreak of World War II, Louw, told parliament in Pretoria that he was convinced that “if it were possible to remove Jewish influence and pressure from the press and from the news agencies, the international outlook would be considerably brighter than it is today”.
An unnerved Board of Deputies put out a statement which combined understanding with mild criticism of Israel’s action, advocating freedom of expression and suggesting that an abstention would have been more appropriate. This provoked irritation from liberal sections of the community. One asked whether Louw’s freedom of speech was more important than that of Albert Lutuli — the ANC president who had been banned for many years and confined to his home.
Another motion at the UN which advocated diplomatic and economic sanctions against South Africa was similarly supported by Israel. In retaliation, the South African Treasury refused to renew special privileges that allowed the transfer of gift funds to Israel.
A private letter from prime minister Verwoerd to a local Jew was then published. It suggested that Israel’s voting behaviour was “a tragedy for South African Jewry” and might cause local antisemitism. He further wrote that during the previous election “so many Jews had favoured the Progressive party and so few the Nationalist party, did not pass unnoticed.” The intimidatory nature of this message brought back memories of Verwoerd’s past history. As editor of Die Transvaler in the 1930s, anti-Jewish opinions were propagated through the columns of his newspaper. He had suggested a quota system for Jews in each profession: “Jews should be refused further trading licences until every section of the population has its proper share.”
Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir refused to back down and repeatedly evoked Jewish values and experience in condemning apartheid. Their policies in cultivating the African states came to nothing however when there was a mass breaking off of diplomatic relations after the Yom Kippur war due to Arab economic inducement. An isolated Israel then began a clandestine rapprochement with the apartheid regime which included the sale of arms.
It was therefore unsurprising that Mandela on his release was not well-disposed towards Israel. Even so, on receiving news that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Mandela said that Yitzhak Rabin was more deserving than himself because of his forging of the Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat. He finally visited Israel in 1999.
In 2018 in a leaderless world, Mandela remains an inspiring figure. During his final speech at the Rivonia trial, which resulted in a sentence of life imprisonment, Mandela told the court:
“I hate the racial arrogance which decrees that the good things of life shall be retained as the exclusive right of a minority of the population and which reduces the majority to a position of subservience and inferiority and maintains them as voteless chattels to work where they are told and behave as they are told. I am sustained in that hatred (of race discrimination) that the overwhelming majority of mankind both in this country and abroad are with me.”
It is a sentiment with which all Jews with an understanding of their history will undoubtedly identify.