Throughout the days of Mandela’s passing in December 2013, it rained incessantly. So too in Israel! During the memorial service at the residence of South Africa’s Ambassador, Sisa Ngombane in Tel Aviv the heavens opened.
It was said in tributes that as rain brings “life, rejuvenation and hope,” so too “has Mandela’s life on earth been a fertile source of inspiration for all mankind.” Others interpreted the excessive rain to tears – “of a world in mourning.”
Within hours of Madiba’s passing, the Israeli media was inundated with emails and calls from members of the community in Israel relating anecdotes followed by the sending of photographs. In a tribute to Mandela, we tap into the stories of some of these individuals whose lives at one time or another connected with the “Rainbow Nation’s” iconic liberator.
Dream the Impossible
Rabbi Dov Sidelsky from Jerusalem was hounded by the local media. The son of the late Lazer Sidelsky who hired Mandela as an articled clerk in the forties, Dov was interviewed live on Israel English TV News, Channel 33 and Arutz HaKnesset as well as The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, Yediot Acharonot, Ha’aretz, HaMishpacha and others. Dov relates that when his father visited the “world’s most famous political prisoner”, he was introduced by Mandela to his warden as “The only white man I will ever call Boss.”
Being born of Xhosa regal stock, the late Walter Sisulu once remarked that had it not been for Sidelsky hiring Mandela, “South Africa may have had another tribal chief rather than its greatest president.” It was Sisulu who appealed to Sidelsky in the early 1940s to employ “this young man from the Transkei” at a time when, says Dov, “it was very difficult to attain work even as a white clerk – for a black clerk almost impossible.”
Well, as Mandela used to famously say, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Lazer Sidelsky’s grandson Daniel who made Aliyah from Johannesburg in 2012, relates meeting Mandela on two occasions, both times in the presence of his late grandfather. “At the first meeting we were discussing the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter when Mandela remarked, “You know, they used to brand me a terrorist and now they say I was a freedom fighter”.”
This fluid definition unsettled Daniel until his second meeting!
His grandfather lay desperately ill in hospital when Mandela paid him a visit and to lighten the atmosphere he jokingly asked:
“Lazer, what are your plans when you get to heaven?”
“Granddad was in no physical condition to answer so Mandela continued, “When I arrive in heaven the first thing I plan to do is join the local ANC and meet with millionaires to raise money for schools in Africa.”
The distinction to Daniel was clear. “Here was a man after a lifetime of struggle and sacrifice – not for himself but for his people – and his thoughts and concerns about the hereafter remained still only for others. There was no thought of what he in heaven deserved; only how he could continue to serve.” This is a far cry, asserts Daniel, from those who welcome heaven expecting rewards “like 72 virgins.”
Lennie Pearl’s late uncle Nat Bregman served articles together with Mandela in Sidelsky’s law firm and “remained close friends until he passed away in 2011.” Lennie, who lives in Netanya has many photographs of the family with Mandela.
While the building which housed Sidelsky’ law offices had segregated elevators, “my uncle would ride with Mandela on the one reserved for blacks,” says Lennie.
In his memoirs, Mandela describes “Natie” as his first white friend who dragged him to his communist get-togethers. He amusingly records how Nat gave him his first lesson in Communism over a lunch break in Sidelsky’s office:
“Nelson, hold the other side of my sandwich.”
“Break,” he says.
“And so I broke.”
“Now eat,” he instructs.
“So I ate.”
“You see, we share everything we have – you have now had your first ‘bite’ of Communism.”
Mandela had little ‘appetite’ for communism and noted with both amusement and insight, “They were a spirited bunch but more focused on class than race.”
Michael Jankelowitz from Jerusalem and former Spokesman for the Jewish Agency remembers the politics of the struggle against apartheid “having grown up in a home where my late father Colin Jankelowitz, a lawyer in Port Elizabeth, defended local ANC leaders from 1958 until 1964.” Among his most noted clients were the late Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mthlaba, who were sentenced with Mandela at the Rivonia Trial and served many years with him on Robben Island.
Michael may well feel personally indebted to Mandela. “It was 1948 and my Dad, who was articled to Dave Snaier, used to hang out with all the other articled clerks together during lunch breaks.”
It was at one such lunch break that “Mandela asked my dad straight, “Colin, when are you getting married?” When my dad replied that he had not yet even proposed, Mandela told him, “You better hurry up or she will find somebody else.”
Helen Goldfoot from Herzliya Pituach was Secretary of the Faculty of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) when Mandela graduated in 1950. “He was the only black in his class that included Joe Slovo. I was present at the meeting of the senior professors who met to discuss the final year grades and I remember Prof. Morris Kahn emphasizing how unlike all the white students, Mandela had to return home each day to a hut in Soweto where there was no electricity and had to study by candlelight.” The signs were already there “that here was a young man, defying all the obstacles and was driven to succeed.” Helen still recalls, “How charming he was.”
‘Playboy’ to President
Spanning a career of reporting on apartheid, Benjamin Pogrund was frequently investigated by security police, put on trial several times, experienced prison once and had his passport revoked. Today the former Deputy-Editor of the Rand Daily Mail is the director of Yakar’s Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem which he founded.
He recalls that in the early days “there was this image of Mandela in the ANC as being a bit of a playboy and ladies’ man. The whisper among some of the rank and file was that he was not really to be taken seriously. It sprang from his imposing appearance – tall, handsome and always impeccably dressed in a suit.”
While the majority of blacks then were labourers, mainly working in the mining industry, “Mandela was a professional – an attorney with his own car. This was a rarity among blacks at the time.”
This perception was to dramatically change following the Sharpeville massacre on 21 March 1961 “which tested Mandela to the ultimate. The ANC and the rival PAC – whose call for action had precipitated Sharpeville – were banned and the government was seizing and jailing the leaders. Mandela disappeared; he went underground and began to plan a stay-at-home strike against the government. The entire police force hunted him but he eluded them. He was known as the ‘Black Pimpernel’. The playboy nonsense was never heard again.”
Following the failure of the strike, “he phoned me saying he believed there was no longer a place for non-violent resistance to apartheid. Shortly after, he led the ANC in switching to a policy of armed resistance.”
His life thereafter until his capture became a game of cat and mouse.
“We set up secret meetings by sending messages through trusted people. We met at the home of Adelaide and Paul Joseph near Joburg’s city centre, or I parked my car at night in a dark spot in a quiet street and Mandela would appear. His disguise – which did little to conceal him – was a worker’s boiler suit.”
What struck Pogrund was “how he projected such purpose and determination. He deliberately walked away from a comfortable and secure life at a level to which very few blacks could ever have aspired to. Leaving behind Winnie and their two young daughters, he put his life on the line and there was never a single word of complaint or regret.”
His steadfast character was all too evident in later years to the apartheid leadership who, afraid Mandela might die in prison and emerge a martyr, made repeated offers to release him, “provided he agreed to retire to the vassal Transkei Bantustan.”
Mandela rejected all offers coupled with compromise and insisted on the unconditional dismantling of apartheid.
For Mandela, there were no degrees of freedom – one was either free or one was not.
Many years would pass before Pogrund again met Mandela. “I kept applying for a visit and was refused. Then, out of the blue, it was agreed. I was to be allowed to see him as a friend, not as a journalist, and had to promise not to write anything.
“In the interview room, on the other side of a large sheet of glass, in walked Nelson: his hair grey, his face lined, but looking in good health and as imposing as ever.”
Pogrund sensed a change about the man. “Although he was the same warm and friendly person I had known all those years before, there was now an added gravitas to him. He had come through the fire, and was steeled and strong. I noted that he had an authority unusual in a prisoner.” In all the years working for The Rand Daily Mail, “I had never before come across a prisoner whose attitude and behaviour were not that of a prisoner. On a subsequent visit with my wife, the prison’s officer in the room deferred to him. When we were saying goodbye in the entrance hall, it was hard to believe that this was a man who was going to be locked in that night. It would be another four years before he was released.”
Solly Sacks from Jerusalem recalls with amusement the great parliamentary anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman once rebuking Mandela for constantly referring to his colleagues as “comrades’. “Stop this nonsense,” she said.
“I suppose if Mandela could comfortably call the Queen of England ‘Elizabeth’, then Helen, who was one of the few people who had visited him in prison, could get away with being so blunt.” What’s more, she said it two days after his release in 1990 at a meeting with the Jewish leadership in Johannesburg. Solly, who at the time, was Chairman of the SAZF, further recalls how Mandela was astounded to hear that there were only 100,000 Jews in South Africa. Acknowledging their contribution, “He believed the community was closer to 1.5 million,” and recognizing their potential, expressed, “I want the Jewish people of South Africa to stay in South Africa and contribute to its future.” Most memorable says Solly, was listening to the reminiscing, “Especially between Helen, Mandela and Issy Maisels.”
In truth says Solly, “They were good friends of long standing and in the struggle been ‘comrades’.”
While anti-Israel forces today falsely besmirch Israel for its exaggerated association with South Africa during the apartheid years – infinitesimal compared to other nations who were doing a roaring trade with the apartheid regime – it is interesting to note how Israel rose to the occasion in supporting Mandela when facing the gallows in 1964.
According to the documents recently declassified by the Israel State Archives, Israel sent a letter to the South African government urging it to negotiate with Mandela and the other accused. The letter also criticized the regime’s segregationist policies.
Israel’s foreign minister, Golda Meir, urged Israel’s charge d’affaires in Cape Town to express Israel’s displeasure with the trial and praised Mandela’s opening address to the court, noted for its closing lines “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
She described Mandela’s address as displaying “immense courage and voiced the pain of millions of Africans.” Reinforcing its support for Mandela, the Israeli Foreign Ministry roped in philosopher Martin Buber and Israeli author Haim Hazaz who addressed a letter to the government of South Africa to protest the regime’s crackdown on the ANC.
“Talk to them. Listen to them. They have something to say. You will not silence their voices by hanging them. … From the land of Israel, we ask you to assert your faith in the nobility of man, whatever the colour of his skin. And if you’d do unto others in accordance with this faith, the future is yours, and theirs … and the worlds.”
How Mandela, when he took the oath of office in 1994 as the first black president of South Africa, must have reflected on those words he uttered from the court room 30 years before, for although “the ideal of a democratic and free society” was an ideal he “was prepared to die for”, destiny decreed it was an ideal that he “would live for and achieve.”