South African Jews remember Mandela

South African Jews remember Mandela

Many South Africans left flowers, paintings and other tributes outside the home of Nelson Mandela. The famous anti-apartheid activist and first democratically elected president of South Africa died Thursday, Dec. 5. He was 95. (Photo courtesy of Marlene Behrmann)
Many South Africans left flowers, paintings and other tributes outside the home of Nelson Mandela. The famous anti-apartheid activist and first democratically elected president of South Africa died Thursday, Dec. 5. He was 95. (Photo courtesy of Marlene Behrmann)

(Editor’s note: Marlene Behrmann, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University who grew up in South Africa, was visiting her family when Nelson Mandela died. She offers her observations and impressions of the country, and its Jewish community, in light of Mandela’s impact.)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Shalom Madiba! Hamba Kahle (Go Well) Mandela!

These words were printed on the lapel stickers handed out at the Oxford synagogue the night of Sunday, Dec. 8, as approximately 2,000 Jews came together to celebrate the life of Nelson Rohlilahla Mandela — also affectionately known by his clan name Madiba — and pay tribute to him.

Fortuitously, I was in Johannesburg visiting my parents whose home is about a mile from the Mandela residence and so I was able to attend this moving service. The Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Warren Goldstein, and the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, both spoke in glowing terms of Mandela and his contribution. They also encouraged the crowd to continue the Madiba legacy of justice, peace and ubuntu (essentially “being a mensch”).

The Israeli Ambassador, Arthur Lenk, delivered a message of condolence from President Shimon Peres. He noted that Mandela was a great friend of Israel and was unwaveringly supportive of a homeland for the Jews but also had a deep interest in the plight of the Palestinian people.

Mincha and Maariv were interleaved into the program and, at the end of the service, the community sang “Hatikvah” as well as the South African anthem “Nkosi sikele’ iAfrika” (God bless Africa), which was banned in the time of apartheid. Voices rose strong and spirited as the recently added lines of the anthem were sung, “And united we shall stand, Let us live and strive for freedom in South Africa, our land.”

This is a great and terrible moment in world history and we were all transfixed in front of the television watching the world dignitaries arrive here. As I wrote, Bishop Desmond Tutu was speaking live and people were texting messages to the TV station, which were displayed in a running stream at the bottom of the screen.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama eulogized Mandela during a rain-soaked memorial service for 95,000 people and world dignitaries at the stadium in Soweto.  Obama, who came with First Lady Michele Obama, as well as former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, praised Mandela’s policy of national reconciliation, which helped heal South Africa.

“It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailor as well,” Obama said, “to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion, generosity and truth.”

I went to the Mandela residence with my mother, sister and nephew. There were throngs of people with flowers and candles and the mood was both festive and sombre.

I grew up in South Africa and lived there until 1986, although I had been out of the country for extended periods on several occasions prior to that. My grandparents immigrated to Johannesburg from Lithuania in the early 1900s (this is a very common story among South African Jews, whose lineage is mostly Lithuanian). I attended a large Jewish Day School throughout my school years and received a solid and rigorous academic education, with a strong emphasis on Jewish studies, Hebrew and Zionism. I was a member of the Jewish youth movement, Habonim, and our family lived less than a block from Cyrildene synagogue (Orthodox, as is true of the large majority of the congregations in Johannesburg). Our family was particularly well known in the neighborhood, not only because my father was a gabbai at the synagogue and served on many committees, but also because our dog Cremora would often leave our house and turn up during shul services, even making his way to the upstairs women’s section.

I left South Africa during the State of Emergency in 1986 and joined my sister and her family in Toronto, and moved to Pittsburgh to assume a position at Carnegie Mellon University in 1993.

At the time of my departure, the future of South Africa looked uncertain, and it was increasingly uncomfortable to live under the yoke of apartheid. Like many of my generation, I made a life for myself outside of South Africa but, like my compatriots,  I continued to feel a deep yearning and visceral connection to the country. And so, I, along with all South Africans, mourn the passing of an unprecedented leader. The Jewish community of Johannesburg in particular, but of South Africa more generally, is inextricably part of the Mandela narrative.

Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years, was one of 10 individuals who were tried and convicted of sabotage, public violence and bombings; six of the others were Jewish. Many of the defendants were represented by high-profile Jewish lawyers and even the judge was Jewish.

The Jewish community has always been moderate (and sometimes left-leaning) politically and many prominent activists who fought in the struggle for democracy were Jewish. The Jewish community has always been known to be sympathetic to the inequalities that existed in South Africa and it is incontrovertible that Jews played an important role in bringing a new world order to South Africa. Some have alleged that Jews should have done more to alleviate the suffering of the masses and to play a more active role in politics during the apartheid years. While that may well be true, the situation was complicated for Jews who were immigrants and sojourners in this foreign land. In retrospect, perhaps we could have done more and many of us will bear the guilt of these times forever.

The apartheid system brought about a mass migration of Jews as the uncertainty of the future made it difficult to build a life in South Africa. Many families, such as mine, have been splintered, with individual members settling down wherever the opportunities for work presented themselves, even if this required living on different continents.

Nonetheless, there is still a strong Jewish presence in South Africa. The community continues to build: the synagogues are thriving, there are multiple Jewish day schools and, if anything, people are more religiously observant than when I was growing up. When I visit, I attend the shul at which my brother-in-law is the pulpit rabbi and there are typically a couple of hundred people present on a Friday night, with a horde of children running up to drink a small glass of grape juice on the bimah at the end of the service.

Even so, there remains concern about the future of the Jewish community in South Africa. While Mandela was around, he seemed to offer checks and balances to ensure political stability. Although the economic situation is booming in many respects, the disparities between the haves and have-nots is still enormous. Many people I have spoken to wonder what will happen when the grief and mourning subside and the reality of a post-Mandela world starts to sink in. Although there are bumps in the road ahead, I, for one, remain optimistic.