Jews in Mandela’s South Africa

The year was 1994; South Africa was hanging on a thread. The first free general election was about to take place on April 27.

The world was waiting with baited breath to see whether civil war would erupt and blood would be shed.

 I had just moved from Cape Town to live in the most dangerous city in the world, Johannesburg. I could not have been more excited about my upcoming wedding four weeks from that date.  

When I was 8 years old, I remember sitting next to my grandfather and asking “Why did you not take the boat from Vilna to America?” “My darling,” he said, “do you think Jews could go anywhere they wanted?”

 There was a small quota in 1927 allowing Jews to emigrate from Lithuania to South Africa. So three generations ago, my grandparents fled oppression and anti-Semitism to go to a country on a different continent where some had rights, but many did not.

In hindsight, when I read about the events leading up to the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, including the violence occurring on a daily basis in the townships and the tribal fighting, I am amazed at not only the turmoil and uncertainty in which we lived, but also how we continued with “life as normal”

I lived three minutes away from Alexandria Township, and hearing gunshots and seeing smoke from our balcony was a common occurrence.   However, since media censorship was still in place, we did not hear or see or read about most of the turmoil and violence. It was the outside world that truly had more insight into what was going on in South Africa. I remember some of our relatives and friends fleeing the country before our wedding, being convinced civil war would break out at any minute.

Instead of fearing the new political situation and its possible implications for me and the Jewish community in South Africa, I was filled with a sense of hopeful anticipation and a sense of purpose that all young people and specifically women could play in this new democratic country.

I foresaw the many opportunities in this  “New South Africa” At 25, I had started a market research company and would go into township and tribal areas to conduct in-depth interviews and group discussions with my teams of interviewers. Since no research had previously been conducted in any of these areas, and all groups had been kept separate from each other under the Apartheid system, we had very little understanding of the cultures, attitudes, needs and wants of communities.

I was fascinated by the differences in each tribe’s culture and realized that understanding a person’s culture is the foundation of respect in a new society.  When I lectured to research students on how to go about conducting qualitative and quantitative research it was many times them who taught me the appropriate terms of respect and endearment when addressing people of various ages.

From being a feared and regarded by many white South Africa as “persona non grata” whose name was mentioned in whispers, ” Nelson Mandela became our savior and leader. He assured each and every person that no matter their religious affiliations, tribal roots or the color of their skin, they had a home in the new South Africa — the “rainbow nation”. 

Despite these assurances, the many opportunities that presented themselves in the new South Africa and the adoration and respect for Nelson Mandela, I feared for the future of the Jewish Community in the New South Africa. I read about and witnessed the horrific, escalating daily crimes and the close alliances that the New African National Congress (ANC) government had formed with then Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro and Muammar Gadhafi.

For generations, Jews in South Africa had been asking, “Is there a place for us, do we have a future?”  Before Mandela was elected President, we personally, and as a community, continuously debated this topic.

Now, with Mandela’s passing, we continue to ask the same question. While the world and the political environment have changed over the past 19 years, the debate for Jews in South Africa remains the same.

Mandela was a hero because he understood each group’s and each community’s insecurities and fears.  When one suffers, it is easy to become insulated and myopic. Mandela experienced suffering, dedicated his life to the freedom struggle, having spent 27 years in prison, sacrificing his family life and enduring harsh conditions. Yet somehow, he was able not only to forgive and reach out to those who had tormented him, but also to show empathize with them at the very things they feared.

Each time I heard Mandela speak, dressed in his famous “ African shirts,” I think of a man of immense power, but with amazing humility, modesty and compassion. To South African Jews, and to people throughout the world, he has a value we will never be able to quantify.  He represents the very best of human kindness, one that always tried to build a better South Africa for all South Africans.

Today as a Jew, what concerns me most is that there is no one in the South African Government who can maintain that same level of empathy and closeness for the South African Jewish community or who understands the Jewish community’s affiliations with Israel as Mandela did. He understood that Israel is not just a country, but also a part of each Jewish person.

South Africa’s Jewish community, in particular, will be forever grateful for the influence Mandela had on their lives not just as President, but also for the respect he showed for every religion.

Leora Raikin is a South African fiber artist, author, teacher and speaker on African tribal arts and customs through African Folklore Embroidery as well as The Jews of Southern Africa- From Vilna, to Cape Town to Los Angeles. She has lectured at  Skirball Cultural Museum and was guest artist at Camp Ramah. In South Africa she founded Strategic Property Research and was awarded Business Achiever of the year for her work in post-apartheid research. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband Gary and son Joshua.