Jewish Memories of Mandela, a landmark publication that was recently launched at the 46th national conference of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, tells the Mandela story as reflected in the lives and recollections of Jewish community members who were associated with him over the decades.
Published under the joint auspices of the SAJBD and the Umoja Foundation, the book is an enthralling record of the part Jews played in one of the 20th century’s most inspiring sagas.
As can be seen from Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Jews pop up with remarkable frequency throughout the Mandela story, from the latter’s arrival in Johannesburg in 1941 onwards. Many of these were Jewish Capetonians, including fellow political activists, businessmen, medical practitioners and parliamentarians. Indeed, Nelson Mandela, while born in the Eastern Cape, came to be particularly associated with three South African cities.
One was Johannesburg, where he pursued the main part of his political resistance activities, as well as his post-graduate legal studies and professional activities as an attorney. It was also in Johannesburg that he chose to make his permanent home after his release from captivity in 1990.
A second city with which he came to have a strong association was Pretoria, first as a high profile defendant in a series of political trials and later as the country’s first post-liberation president, with his official quarters in the Union Buildings.
The third city with which Mandela came to be especially associated with was Cape Town. It was here that he spent most of his 27 years in captivity, initially on Table Bay’s now world-famous Robben Island and thereafter (before his final transfer to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl) in Pollsmoor Prison. After 1994, he sat at the head of government in parliament.
Amongst the Jewish Capetonians who feature in Jewish Memories of Mandela are stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle, including Denis Goldberg, Ben Turok and Ray Alexander. Also remembered are the today largely forgotten but stil noteworthy individuals, such as the formidable Communist Party MP Sam Kahn, Ike Horvitch, Lionel Forman and Brian and Sonja Bunting. Horvitch, an architect, was one of 156 activists in the dock during the 1956 — 1961 Treason Trial. Some of the sketches he made of his fellow trialists during the dreary court proceedings are reproduced in the chapter on that trial.
Whilst in prison, Mandela was visited on a number of occasions by Helen Suzman, for many years the sole representative of the Progressive Party in parliament. She was also the only Opposition MP during those years that made the effort to find out about prison conditions for political detainees, and worked to improve them. Suzman’s reminiscences of her meetings with Mandela, as well as their subsequent relationship, are featured.
Many of the episodes recounted in Jewish Memories of Mandela are effectively being related for the first time. One is how Jewish dentist Maurice Kolevsohn nearly found himself caught in the middle of a daring escape bid that Mandela and two other prisoners, Mac Maharaj and Wilton Mkwayi, had planned to attempt when they were brought to his offices to receive dental treatment. In the end, the plan was called off at the last minute when it was realised that the three were in all likelihood being set up for assassination by the police once it was put into operation. Kolevsohn duly carried out the treatment, not knowing until many years later how close he had come to being involved in what could have been a history-altering tragedy.
After his release, the Jewish community established warm ties with Mandela. An especially memorable occasion was when he addressed the Green and Sea Point congregation on the Shabbat before he was inaugurated as President. Amongst those sharing the occasion were SAJBD Chairman Mervyn Smith (the first Capetonian to hold that position), Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and Israel Ambassador Alon Liel.
Jewish Memories of Mandela is written by David Saks (Associate Director of the SAJBD), designed by Mama Creative and with picture research by Gail Behrman. It is scheduled to be officially launched in Cape Town on 31 October by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in partnership with the Jacob Gitlin Library and the SA Jewish Museum.
Copies of the book can be obtained through the Cape offices of the SAJBD firstname.lastname@example.org or 021 464 6700
This article first appeared in the October 2011 edition of the Cape Jewish Chronicle Click here