Nelson Mandela and the Jewish Connection

When Helen Suzman visited Mandela on Robben Island, state security officials warned her about associating with ‘opponents’ of South Africa but she persisted and managed to improve conditions on the island. Mandela thought it was an odd and wonderful sight to see this “courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.”

Helen recognised his leadership qualities when she first met him in 1967 and she told Prime Minister Botha that he should meet him as she was convinced that Mandela’s presence at the negotiating table was essential for a peaceful future, probably their last hope.  Possibly that was the reason she was denied permission to visit Mandela for a couple of years after that. Things became easier once he had moved to Pollsmoor and the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl and their friendship lasted until her death.

Of the 156 people on trial for Treason in 1956 alongside Nelson Mandela were 23 whites, fourteen of whom were Jewish.
Philip Krawitz received death threats and public criticism when, as Chamber of Commerce president in 1985, he called for Mandela’s release, and meaningful negotiations between all parties. When this had no effect, he arranged secret meetings in his home between the ANC and politicians. When Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies issued a press statement praising the government’s decision, hoping for “an atmosphere for the establishment of genuine democracy for the benefit of the country and all its peoples.”

Shortly before Mandela’s inauguration on 10 May 1994 as South Africa’s first democratically elected President, the Jewish Board of Deputies invited him to attend shul prior to the opening of Parliament. He agreed to visit the Marais Road Synagogue, in Sea Point, to come and alleviate the fears of the Jewish minority.

This was history in the making. After fifty years of the Group Areas Act, there was a black man with a white yarmulke, banned as a terrorist for years, standing in a packed synagogue, reassuring the community and praising the involvement of Jews in the anti-apartheid struggle. He told the congregation that it was a Jewish attorney (Lazar Sidelsky) who had given him articles at a time when it was virtually impossible to article a black law clerk.

Such was the measure of the man who having finally gained the freedom of the black majority, instead of savouring his triumph, took the trouble to reassure the small Jewish minority within the minority white community that they too mattered, that they too formed part of the South African society and that he counted on them to help make the country great.

“You have nothing to fear from an ANC-led government,” he told them. He also said that he supported the existence of Israel but also backed the rights of Palestinians to have their own homeland.

Mandela understood the issues that confront the Jewish community and wrote to the Board in 2003 stating that “The struggle against prejudice has not been an easy one, for many years Jewish South Africans were the targets of religious bigotry, racism and frequently outright discrimination, both at the social and institutional levels.  As a small religious and ethnic minority, Jews were always vulnerable to this kind of treatment.”

When we look out across Table Bay, the horizon is dominated by Robben Island, whose infamy as a dungeon built to stifle the spirit of freedom is as old as colonialism in South Africa. The struggle for democracy has never been a matter pursued by one race, class, religious community or gender among South Africans. In honouring those who fought to see this day arrive, we honour the best sons and daughters of all our people. We can count amongst them Africans,

Coloureds, Whites, Indians, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews – all of them united by a common vision of a better life for the people of this country.

The Jews of Cape Town salute this great man who has changed the future and the face of South Africa and honor his legacy.

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