By Rabbi Ralph Genende
(Participant of the Mission of Muslim and Jewish leaders from the Southern Hemisphere in 2013)
Growing up in apartheid South Africa, the name Mandela was one to be feared and reviled; the most famous prisoner and terrorist who preached armed resistance and fomented rebellion. As a child I was apprehensive about the graffiti scrawled on the wall: “Free Nelson Mandela”. A proud, invisible (images and photos of him were banned) and articulate black man in a racist white society who dared to declare: “Freedom will come to South Africa one day; even if you hang me it will give inspiration to others.”
I knew that Mandela had been employed in his first job by a Jewish lawyer (Lazar Sidelsky), that his wife Winnie was a strident woman who stood by her husband, that he was imprisoned on Robben Island. What I didn’t know, what most South Africans didn’t know and the world may only have sensed was that “a great prince in prison lies”. That this windswept barren island not far off the beautiful Cape Coast was nurturing a spirit that would one day stun the world. As Mandela himself wrote from prison: “The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself…we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one’s social position, wealth…but internal factors may be more crucial in assessing our development as human beings. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others”.
Nelson Mandela didn’t become an icon because he was of royal African lineage; in fact his early life was marked by simplicity and relative poverty. He was in many ways an angry young man buffeted by strong impulses – as Oliver Tambo said of the young prisoner: “As a man, Nelson Mandela is passionately emotional, sensitive, quickly stung to bitterness and retaliation by insult and patronage.” He was, in his youth, a comrade in the arms struggle with a natural air of authority and even arrogance. He was criticised for issuing statements without consultation or permission of the ANC Executive. He was unabashedly forward; his son recalled him as a young man saying: “One day I will be President of South Africa.” In many ways he was like the young Biblical Joseph, preternaturally aware of his prodigious talent and gifts but not mature enough to recognise the impact of his vision on others.
Nelson Mandela became an icon precisely because he was a flawed man who came to recognise his frailties, overcome his shortcomings and rise above his own personal needs to heal a wounded people and lead a fractured society into a peaceful rainbow nation. When “Chazon”, a vision of destruction and chaos beckoned, Nelson preached: “Nachamu, Nachamu, ami” – find comfort and conciliation oh my beloved people, cry no more oh my beloved country…
Nelson Mandela enjoyed the limelight and was aware that his iconic status gave him extraordinary access to power and influence, but he never forgot he was a fallible human being. He became uncomfortable with the carefully calibrated biography designed (and edited by the ANC leadership) to portray him as almost perfect (‘Long Walk to Freedom’) and issued the more personal and intimate ‘Conversations with Myself’. In it he wrote “In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary human beings; men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous”.
He became an inspiration to billions across the world because he was just a man; he became a light to the nations because he was just a man who made himself into all that we call best in man. He is an inspiration to me as a Jew because he represents some of the highest values our Torah guides us towards: courage, restraint, humility, integrity, dignity, compassion but perhaps above all the power and potency of forgiveness. He fulfilled the Torah’s prescriptions not to avenge or bear a grudge with breathtaking precision. It didn’t come easy for him, his jailers were particularly cruel not even allowing him to attend his son’s funeral. He distrusted and felt betrayed by President FW de Klerk, but despite this he observed and knew too well: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies”. He is an inspiration to me as a rabbi because he was an extraordinary leader, guiding his people with wisdom, self-deprecation and steely strength. His very names indicate this: his birth name Rolihlahla, the pulling of the branch or a tree or the one who disturbs the established order; Nelson (the English name given to him on his first day at school) after the great English naval commentator and strategist known for his bravery; Madiba his popular clan name which means reconciler and literally the filler of ditches.
Mandela may not have been an admirer of Israel and the ANC and its leadership have not forgotten Israel’s support (especially military) of the apartheid government. Notwithstanding this he was a friend of the Jews of South Africa and always acknowledged his first Jewish employers and the support they gave him.
In a meeting with Abraham Foxman (of the ADL) and American Jewish leaders in 1990, Mandela reflected a nuanced and pragmatic approach to Israel and expressed his unequivocal support for Israel’s right to exist. He also spoke of his profound respect for Ben Gurion, Golda Meir and Menachem Begin. Foxman recalled this meeting as a magnificent encounter “in the sense that Mandela said to us, “Look I appreciate what the Jewish Community has done for me. On the other hand, if the test of my friendship is that I have to be an enemy of your enemy, then I cannot be your friend…[In prison] I needed the support of anybody I could get. And Arafat gave me support. And Castro gave me support”. In view of the new South Africa’s ambivalent relationship with Israel, the decision by PM Bibi Netanyahu not to attend the Mandela Memorial Service was confounding and disappointing; the excuse of inadequate funds was simply insulting. Netanyahu squandered an opportunity to show statesmanship and heal a difficult relationship.
Nelson Mandela knew too well that a leader must both afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He also followed the Torah’s guiding principles of leadership. “Appoint a man over the nation who shall go out in front to them, who shall take them out and bring them in…a man in whom there is spirit…place some of your majesty upon him” (Numbers 27:15-21). He exemplified leading from the front but he also knew what it was to lead from the back, to share the limelight and emulate Lincoln who once said: “It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it is their own idea.” He was a man in whom there was an abundance of spirit; he was principled, saw the good in others and believed that love makes the difference (see Richard Stengel’s portrait of Mandela’s extraordinary leadership).
During his long illness the South African Jewish community was as transfixed on the ailing giant as any other group in South Africa. On a visit to South Africa earlier this year, we went past the Houghton home of Mandela on several occasions to look at the tributes on the sidewalk, to hear the heartfelt voices raised in prayer and song. One of the colourful tributes read: “Yiddish Folk Kids (a Yiddish school) are following in Madiba’s footsteps” another in the shape of a heart simply said: “Madiba, We love you – please get better soon. All our love – Oxford Shule Pre-school.” The Chief Rabbi of South Africa’s prayer composed for Nelson Mandela summed up both the sentiment and the significance of this great leader and extraordinary human being:
“We are grateful for his courage and dignity in adversity and for his mighty power of forgiveness which helped create this great nation. We are grateful for how he united us, and served as a dedicated and humble President…we ask you oh Lord to…inspire our hearts to walk in the path of Nelson Mandela, to live up to his majestic legacy.”
When I heard that Mandela had died, I like so many across the world, felt a sense of personal loss. It also seemed that, as the rabbis put it, when a righteous man dies, the place in which he lived loses something of its spark, its beauty and its majesty. The world is diminished by his departure. After JFK was assassinated, his widow Jackie lamented “So now he is a legend when he would have preferred to be a man.” Nelson Mandela always preferred to be a man; he reminded us that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. He kept on trying and so inspired us to keep on going, to persist and never to stop trying to become our best selves. President Obama’s magnificent speech at the Memorial Service (which I only heard after I wrote this piece) captured Madiba, the man and his momentous achievements magnificently: “And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach – think of Madiba…”