Port Elizabeth Launch of Jewish Memories of Mandela

by David Saks on 27 November 2011

in Media

Remarks by SAJBD Associate Director David Saks at the Port Elizabeth Launch of Jewish Memories of Mandela, on 27 November 2011

What is the epitome of Jewish chutzpah? I would say inviting the President of the country to attend your barmitzvah is Jewish chutzpah. And what is Jewish mazel? When the President actually accepts.

It happened in South Africa. The barmitzvah boy in question Craig Joseph and the President was Nelson Mandela. Young Craig’s parents chuckled indulgently when he informed them he had invited the President, only to be flabbergasted to receive a communications from the President’s office that he would indeed be attending. With a fine sense of the theatrical, the family decided to keep all the guests in the dark about the visit. One can only imagine what the reaction must have been when the MC asked everyone to stand up and welcome a very special guest and in walked the President himself.

Here’s another true story.

Imagine that two Jewish men had just been locked up in a high security prison for crimes against the State, crimes that could easily result in the death penalty. Now picture one of those men, who is fluent in Afrikaans for having grown up on the platteland, befriending an amiable but non-too-bright prison warder. In due course, he offers the young man a sizable bribe to give him and his companion the keys to the cell, after which he will cosh himself into unconsciousness to make it look like he had been attacked and overcome. The warder duly accepts the bribe, gives the prisoners the keys to freedom but is unable to go through with knocking himself out, resulting in his spending a good few years in gaol himself. Meanwhile, the escaped prisoners emerge in the streets, only to find that the getaway car they were expecting is nowhere to be seen. Feeling pretty desperate, they set off on foot for the Hillbrow flat of a well-known Jewish playwright and writer whom one of them is friendly with. En route, they come across a man relieving himself in the bushes. The latter fears he is about to be mugged, flees to his car and starts driving off. Then he hears his name being called and stops. He turns out to be the very playwright whose home they had been seeking.

It all sounds terribly implausible. It might happen in a Cold War spy thriller, but surely not in real life. Well, it did happen. The two escaping prisoners were Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe, the unhappy young prison warder was Johan Greeff and the playwright was Barney Simon. The latter, through a bizarre chain of events that night had been unable to get near a toilet, hence his presence in the bushes after mid-night on 11 August 1963 when the two fugitives stumbled upon him.

And here is a third story.

In 1973, Nelson Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island, along with many other leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle. Arrangements are made for him and two other prisoners, Mac Maharaj and Wilton Mkwayi, to be taken to the mainland to receive dental treatment. They are to be treated by a respectable Jewish dentist named Morris Kolevsohn (whose sister, it so happens, made her home a temporary refuge for Mandela and several others while they were on the run in Johannesburg). The prisoners decide to use the visit as an opportunity to try to escape. The plan is to ask that their manacles be removed whilst they are being operated on, and then to over-power the guards, tie them up (and Dr Kolevsohn too) and make their escape before anyone can raise the alarm.

The day of the visit finally comes. Mandela, Maharaj and Mkwayi are transported to the mainland and then taken in a police van to Kolevsohn’s rooms. While they are in the van, Mkwayi finds a knife hidden in one of the recesses, which obviously will come in very handy. In Kolevsohn’s rooms, they demand to have their shackles off, which – to their surprise – is done without demurral. The decisive moment is fast approaching. Maharaj then goes to the window, looks out, and suddenly realizes that something is amiss. The street outside is dead quiet – no cars, no pedestrians. “This is all working too smoothly” he thinks, and quietly communicates his misgivings to Mandela. Immediately, Mandela sees the problem and, virtually at the last minute, calls off the planned escape.

Later Maharaj, whose original idea it was to make this escape bid, would chide himself for nearly getting Mandela assassinated. Because in retrospect, it seems almost certain that this is what the police were planning to do, having somehow learned of the scheme well in advance.

They were ready and waiting to shoot Mandela and his comrades as soon as they put their plan into operation. Dr Kolevsohn himself only learned many years later how close he had come to being caught up in an incident that would have changed South African history completely, almost certainly for the worst.

I have related three of the true stories involving Jewish South Africans who played some kind of role in the story of Nelson Mandela, and by extension in that of South Africa’s transition from minority apartheid rule to full, multi-racial democracy. They are amongst the many true-life anecdotes that feature in Jewish Memories of Mandela, the book that tonight is having its Port Elizabeth launch.

I have always loved history, not just because it deals with things that actually happened, but because so frequently, the bare historical facts by themselves are sufficiently redolent with drama, irony, unexpected twists and turns and larger-than-life personalities as to beat fiction hollow.

The Nelson Mandela story, which is so central a component of the story of South Africa’s liberation, is one such case of history trumping fiction. In the latter half of the 20th Century, it was a story that captured the imagination of the world. What was more, and unlike so many other bitter conflicts convulsing the globe, it was a story that ultimately ended not in disillusionment and bloodshed, but in the birth of a new, united democratic nation committed to the values of human rights, equality and non-racialism.

Under apartheid, Jews formed part of the privileged white minority. They were amongst the beneficiaries of the apartheid system, whether they wished to be or not. Some did not wish to be, but they had no choice in the matter. The determining factor as to your legal standing in society was predicated on what your racial classification was.

Most Jews, like most other whites, chose not to oppose the apartheid system, at least not to any significant degree. After 1960, it became increasingly dangerous to do so, certainly in the realm of extra-parliamentary activities.

However, a minority of South African Jews did involve themselves in the struggle against apartheid. In numerical terms, they constituted a remarkably high proportion of white anti-apartheid activists, especially those on the far left of the political spectrum. This is why it has been possible to bring out a book of this nature. Jews formed just one of a range of ethnic minority groupings within the greater white population, yet the extent to which they were involved in the liberation movements completely belied their small numbers. This was true not only in terms of direct political activism, but also as lawyers, journalists, trade unionists and academics.

With all the negative headlines, we tend to forget how much this country has achieved. The transition from repressive white minority rule to multi-racial democracy, and the fact that that democracy has withstood the test of time, notwithstanding its current problems, was something very remarkable. Jewish Memories of Mandela is a celebration of that achievement – a specifically Jewish celebration. It records and honors the many Jewish South Africans who made themselves a part of that story, not just in the lead up to democracy, but in the years that followed.

But the real hero of Jewish Memories of Mandela is Nelson Mandela himself. Through the episodes the book relates, as reflected in the lives and recollections of the Jewish people who feature in it, we are given profound insights both into the kind of leader and the kind of man he was and is.

In the concluding chapter, Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein is quoted as follows:

The kind of leadership exhibited by President Nelson Mandela is empowering. It moves us to fulfill our potential because it makes each of us feel that we are special and significant. Nelson Mandela is famous for his rare ability to interact with all of us irrespective of our position, status or wealth. He has taught us by his example that each of us is precious and special; as the Talmud says: “Whosoever saves one life saves an entire world.” His legendary generosity of spirit, forgiveness and determination in the face of terrible adversity serve as testimony to the unlimited potential of the human spirit created in the image of G-d.

Similarly, Howard Sackstein observes how the true character of a person can be learned from the way he interacts with ordinary individuals in everyday situations: “Mandela mixes ideology with humanity, humility and humor. One can only see these traits emerge in small stories about the man rather than in grand gestures, for it is in these moments that his true humanity shines through.”

Our hope is that Jewish Memories of Mandela makes a worthy contribution towards promoting the legacy of this extraordinary human being. In doing so, we also hope to have instilled in our Jewish community a sense of pride in what so many of its members did to help him reach the heights that he did. This pride should not take the form of ethnic one-upmanship, however. Rather, it should inspire Jewish South Africans to similarly commit themselves to helping make a meaningful difference in building a better South Africa.

I said that this book provides revealing insights not just into the kind of leader Mandela is, but into his outstanding personal qualities. I thought that the following episode from the concluding chapter is particularly striking.

The story is related by Ilan Elkaim, at the time Zimbabwean Jewish businessman living between Bulawayo and Florida, USA. He writes:

Soon after Mandela was released, a conference took place at the Harare Sheraton hotel conference center. At the same time at the same venue, a meeting was held to promote US investment in Zimbabwe. I was invited to give a talk on Bulawayo’s potential in that regard. When both meetings adjourned for lunch, we mingled with many famous politicians. I was standing near the late Joe Slovo and we commenced chatting. Mr Mandela then walked up to us and Slovo introduced me to him. Mandela asked me why I was at the conference, and on being told, asked if I spoke any indigenous languages. I answered him in SiNdebele, and our conversation then continued in my SiNdebele and his Zulu (the two languages are very similar). I was very proud to have engaged with such a wonderful and famous man.

About three years later, my wife and I went to the movies one evening at the Carlton Hotel complex in Johannesburg. Afterwards, while returning to our car, we saw Mr Mandela and his entourage descending to the ground floor from the escalator. My eyes met with Mandela’s and he nodded. I certainly did not think anything of this, but on getting off the escalator, he walked right up to me, greeted me in Zulu and asked how I was doing and how things were going in Bulawayo! I answered him, dumbfounded and incredulous at his recognition of me after years had passed and after having only engaged with him in Harare for a few minutes.”

I have not chosen to relate this story (of which there are several others of a similar nature inJewish Memories of Mandela) in order to draw attention to Mandela’s very remarkable memory. That is obviously true, but there is far more to it than that. What the story ultimately reveals is how much Nelson Mandela respects and values other people, whether great or small, black or white.  He is someone who considers even an ordinary member of the public with whom he has had no more than a fleeting acquaintance important enough to remember, and who years later is considerate enough to extend a warm greeting to him even though he himself has since risen even more to become the country’s first citizen.

How often do we, in our day to day dealings with others, display even a modicum of this sensitivity and consideration? I am not even referring here to casual acquaintances, but those we are regularly in contact with – colleagues, friends, even members of our own family.

I think perhaps this gets to the essence of what the SAJBD was trying to achieving in bringing out this book on Nelson Mandela and his relationship with South African Jewry. It was not so much to tell a political story, although politics obviously comes into it, but a human story. It is the story of a great man and some of those who helped him to become great by striving to do the right thing. Very many of those people came from the ranks of the Jewish community of this country. That is something that is not only a justifiable source of pride, but which hopefully will inspire the Jewish community today to reaffirm its commitment to South Africa and to actively involve itself in building on the legacy that Nelson Mandela has left us.

David Saks

David Saks is Associate Director at the SAJBD’s National Office in Johannesburg.

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