I never met Nelson Mandela. But for me, having recently arrived in South Africa to serve as Israel’s Ambassador, I think I can understand the deep emotions coming from South Africa and messages from across the world honoring one of the great heroes of our lifetime. During my first few months here starting my new position, the giant footsteps of “Madiba,” as he has been fondly known, have been everywhere.
The newspapers today around the world are filled with detailed obituaries marking the great man’s travels from rural Eastern Cape, to University and law studies, the trials and the 27 long years in prison, the further, difficult years of negotiation to peacefully end apartheid and his triumphant and unifying term as President of the Republic of South Africa. Among others around the world, Israel’s President and Prime Minister both issued moving statements.
Those who seek the Jewish and Israeli connections will note his clerkship for Jewish lawyer Lazar Sidelsky, in Johannesburg, whose son lives today in Jerusalem and Mandela’s finding inspiration in reading Begin’s autobiography, “The Revolt” and the description of forming the Irgun to fight the British. Mandela applied these lessons in building African National Congress’ armed underground – Umkhonto we Sizwe. There were members of the predominately Jewish legal team defending Mandela at the infamous Treason and Rivonia trials led by great figures like Issy Maisels and Arthur Chaskalson. Later, Mandela invited President of Israel Ezer Weizman and Yassir Arafat to his 1994 inauguration at the height of the Oslo peace process and sat with them immediately after the historic ceremony and he visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1999. Clearly he did not always agree with Israel and like many South Africans had historical ties to the Palestinians – but always he spoke of a need for a negotiated peace.
The first place I visited after arriving in South Africa in August was the Lillesleaf farm in Johannesburg where Mandela and other ANC leaders hid out over 50 years ago. My wife and I took our daughters to Soweto, to Robben Island and just last weekend we watched together the new film based on Mandela’s astoundingly beautiful autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom” (Read the book! Go see the movie!). I have been given by three different people a beautiful and moving book that was published by the South Africa Board of Jewish Deputies in 2011 called “Jewish Memories of Mandela.”
There are two points of inspiration that I am already channeling, lessons of Mandela that I will try to be touched by over the coming years. The first is challenging conceptions and perceptions. We all know how Mandela famously reached out to the white minority in South Africa to ease their fears and change their expectations. One incident was famously reenacted in the film “Invictus,” celebrating the South African mostly-white “Springboks” rugby team and its victory in the 1995 World Cup. Another was Mandela’s visit to the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town in May 1994 on a Shabbat soon after his historic election, when he emphasized the vital role of Jews in the history and future of South Africa.
For me, it is clear that the Israeli-South African relationship has been historically complicated. There are certainly many preconceptions about who we each are and what our relationship can or should be. I am hoping to spend my time in South Africa emphasizing commonalities in 2013 and beyond: vibrant democracies, vocal civil societies, inspirational and miraculous places which both have enormous domestic and regional challenges. I am already engaging South Africans about how Israeli experience in agriculture, healthcare and innovation can help local priorities within South Africa’s own National Development Plan.
My second inspiration is Madiba’s nearly religious faith in peaceful negotiation and compromise. Peace in South Africa did not come in 1988 when Mandela left Robben Island or on 11 February 1990 when he was finally released from prison. No. I love the Mandela quote on negotiation: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” And another one about violence: “If you have no discipline you are not a freedom fighter. If you kill innocent people you don’t belong in the ANC. Your task is reconciliation. Listen to me. Listen.”
Over four years, tough and often acrimonious negotiations took place leading to the historic election of April 1994. There were fits and starts and violence and setbacks, and even the awful assassination of Chris Hani. But it was obvious that direct dialogue was the path for unification of South Africa.
Our challenges in the Middle East are clearly quite different: Israel is surrounded by instability in Syria and Egypt, terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and is threatened by Iran. With the Palestinians we need to get “divorced” and not “married” like South Africans.
Nevertheless, the lesson of talking to one’s enemies, seeking compromise and looking towards a better future despite troubled histories is deeply meaningful. The idea that impossible, intractable problems can be negotiated – that is a South African model that can be shared in the Middle East. I hope that I can learn more about the South African experience and seek out South African ways to inspire Israelis and Palestinians to talk and find our “internal Mandela”.
Sadly, I never got a chance to meet Nelson Mandela. But he will be with me, as he is for anyone who cares about South Africa, over the coming years. I will continue to be inspired by his life and his impact on his people, as I try to play my own role in helping both South Africa and Israel.
Arthur Lenk became Israel’s Ambassador to South Africa in early August 2013. You can follow his activities on facebook.