Nelson Rolihlala Mandela – father of a nation, ambassador of reconciliation, titan of a leader.
One doesn’t forget meeting an icon. It has been my privilege to have met Nelson Mandela twice in my lifetime. The first time was at a synagogue just after his release from prison on Robben Island and the second time was random, while browsing in a bookstore in Johannesburg.
I remember both occasions clearly. Nelson Mandela loved the youth. After addressing a curious Jewish community in September 1990, he skipped the shmoozing with the communal movers and shakers to come and talk to us, standing quietly in a line, proudly wearing the sweatshirts of our youth movement. Shaking his hand and mumbling a few incoherent words, I was aware that I was in the presence of someone important. In the years to follow, it would become more apparent.
The second time, post his role as President and chief reconciler, Mandela quietly walked into a bookstore on a Sunday afternoon. A hush fell over the store and shoppers were stunned when we realised that Tata was in our midst. Apparently iconic grandfathers also like to buy their grandchildren books!
After shoppers quietly and respectfully gathered, he nodded his acknowledgement of us individually, looking at each person in the small crowd and greeting each person. He moved from the star struck adults and made a beeline for a woman holding a child. Cooing over the infant, his eyes lit up as he chatted to the mother. The child slept through it all.
And as effortlessly he appeared, he left, a smiling Graca (and a security detail) beside him leaving us all completely awestruck.
I know that many are questioning why I am writing this considering that some of Mandela’s statements regarding the status of Palestinians and his unequivocal support for their rights have raised the ire of many. And while Mandela always supported the rights of the Palestinians to have a state he also supported Israel’s right to exist. No doubt Israel’s detractors will be trotting out any statement he would have made critical to Israel and quoting from a letter allegedly (it wasn’t!) written by him castigating Israel and Zionism.
In his memoir, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela spoke of his admiration for the Palmach and Menachem Begin. He learnt guerrilla warfare from Arthur Goldreich, a fellow anti-Apartheid activist who had fought with the Palmach during the 1948 War of Independence and he wanted to model the Umkhonto We Siswe (armed wing of the ANC) on this example. Even though he supported Palestinian national aspirations he was emphatic that Israel has a right to exist famously saying, “I cannot conceive of Israel’s withdrawing if Arab states do not recognise Israel within secure borders.”
Nelson Mandela had a special love for the Jewish community of South Africa. He maintained that because of our history, Jews have sensitivity to racism and discrimination. Throughout his life, Jews have played an instrumental role having fought beside him against Apartheid. It was Jewish lawyers who offered the young attorney an opportunity to do his articles, unheard of at that time.
During the last few months when Madiba’s health took a turn for the worse, his daughter, Dr Makaziwe Mandela, took the time to convey a special message of thanks through Chief Rabbi Goldstein, “Makaziwe specifically said that I should convey to the Jewish community that her father cherishes the special and warm relationship he has had with South African Jews throughout his life. She said that her father deeply appreciates that throughout his life he has enjoyed the warmth, kindness and support of our community.” Mandela was patron of the charity Ma’ Afrika Tikkun, that plays a vital role in helping to build and uplift disadvantaged communities.
Madiba, from a grateful nation, ngiyabonga. Thank you for your life’s work, fighting for freedom and democracy for all South Africans. Thank you for shepherding us through potentially troubled times and thank you for wielding your magic and showing us through example, the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness. Who can forget the visuals of you having tea with Mrs Verwoerd, widow of one of Apartheid’s chief architects, Hendrik Verwoerd. And who can forget you in your Number 6 rugby Jersey, proudly holding up the World Cup.
In the last few days, endless tributes have poured in. Former South African President, FW de Klerk has spoken of your willingness to understand the Afrikaans people and their concerns in the build up to the first democratic elections. My wish is that your legacy will impact on this troubled region and that the importance of negotiation and mutual understanding will help shepherd us towards peace. The best way to honour you is to follow your enormous legacy.
Hamba Kahle Madiba. May you rest in peace.