Jill Schulman
A little corner of Israel in Cape Town

Leaving home and losing Mandela

A week ago, I was contemplating how moving back to South Africa, even if temporarily, was going to be different from having lived there all my life until 13 years ago. After all, leaving your home town changes you. And for us Anglo Jews, leaving our home town to make aliyah changes us even more. Upon arrival in Israel, freshly minted ID books clutched in one hand and passionate Zionistic ideals firmly in the other, our identity as Jews gets challenged in the first months in ways we never expected. Living here and raising one’s family here – we develop into a stronger version of ourselves.

Who am I going back as? I wondered. An ex-South African? An ex- Capetonian Jew, an Israeli Anglo? A Capetonian South African Israeli Anglo Jew? Am I going back home, or am I leaving home? Will I ever, in the G-d willing many years left to me, think of myself as having one home, ever again?

Once, a few years ago, leaving South Africa after a family holiday with my husband and kids, I was overcome with tears whilst speaking to the cashier at Indaba Curios at Oliver Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. He’d been telling me about his ostrich farm, and after glancing at my passport he asked me casually, so are you going away for a holiday, or were you here for a visit and now you’re going back home?

I’d just left my family behind in Cape Town, my crazy, slightly mad, always-missed family. And I started to weep. “I’m sorry,” I said helplessly, “I hate it when this happens.” He stopped what he was doing, and after a moment he shook his head, clicked his tongue, and said “ai… the Fatherland might be home, but the Motherland will always be close to your heart.”

I’m not sure what it is about South Africans, but we tend to secretly agree that it’s different to all those other bastions of Anglo aliyah. I know it’s prejudiced, and I even know it’s annoying. But we can’t seem to help ourselves. Is it the biltong? The Mountain? The Big Five? Perhaps it’s the “just now” and the “ja“, or the memory of Sunday afternoon braais with the cricket and/or rugby in the background, the kids running barefoot through the house on the way to the pool? It is Nkosi Sikilel iAfrika, even though we struggle to remember further than the first line?

On Thursday night, I was sitting up late finishing off some work, and my daughter called me from Jerusalem. “Mommy,” she said, “Madiba died.”

In a second, one thought flew through my head, so quickly I didn’t notice it until it was gone: my children won’t know him. We’re going back to South Africa, and my children will never know him.

Over the last few days I’ve watched the responses of my SA friends and connections, a distinctly heterogenous bunch who now live spread out across the globe, and I’ve realised that as South Africans we have indeed been privileged to have one thing that has set us apart from other countries, no matter what our racial group or religious affiliation, and which has allowed us to hold our heads up wherever in the world we now live, proud to call ourselves South African.

We had Madiba.

During a few of my teenage years we lived opposite Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned at the time. Before that, I had heard about him, the legendary figure incarcerated on Robben Island, just off Cape Town.

Two days after my eldest daughter was born, as I lay in the hospital recuperating, outside the windows the nation was experiencing a rebirth of its own. When I left the hospital with my newborn daughter in my arms, Nelson Mandela was a free man and we saw his face for the first time in almost 30 years.

And a few years later, I stood in line for 6 hours to vote in the first democratic SA elections, my 4-yr old daughter holding my hand. When she got tired, one of the “nannies” in front of me scooped her up onto her back, tied a blanket around her, and carried her, sleeping, until we reached the front of the line. “Let me help you,” she said to me, smiling, looking me in the eye, a women old enough to be my mother, so excited to be there.

Mandela’s inaugural address in front of the Cape Town City Hall took place just a few blocks from my workplace, and we could hear the crowds through our open windows.

And yes, for those of you who watched Invictus, it was really like that. Better. The day SA won the World Cup is a day I will remember to the end of my life, the day a nation was united, the first time I was proud to be a white South African.

I was still living in SA during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a process which brought me to tears over and over and over again, and which taught me more about the nature of forgiveness than any speech, sermon or shiur I’ve ever heard, before or since.

I grew up a white South African, old enough to experience all the privileges and young enough to be absolved of complicity. And yet when I think of myself as a South African, I think of Nelson Mandela. I think of how he was the background to my life there, until we left in early 2001 soon after his retirement. We are returning in 2014, just after his death. I almost can’t imagine a South Africa without him, this man who inspired us all, who touched the world, who left a legacy every one of us can learn from.

To so many people around the world Mandela was a great man, a great figure of humanity. But to us, he was our father. As white South Africans, we thought we should be afraid of him, but instead, we simply loved him. As a Jew, he taught me about grace, forgiveness, what it means to be a ben adam, to become acquainted with the finer version of ourselves that exists within – a process which can take a lifetime.

And to us as Israelis… well, I don’t know, maybe I’m just naive, so to this Israeli anyway, I want to throw a fervent prayer and hope out there into the universe that our own Mandela will come. That somewhere, somehow, out there, somebody will stand up and be able to say this is how it’s done.

In the meantime, what I know is this: I lived in SA to see Mandela released, and to experience what he could do for a nation, and I lived in Israel when Yasser Arafat passed. To be a man of legend is no small thing.

But to live up to it is far greater.

About the Author
Jill Schulman grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, before making aliyah with her husband and children in 2001. Thirteen years later she returned to Cape Town with her family, leaving a grown daughter behind. She's still trying to figure it all out.