By Dr Edie FRIEDMAN, Executive Director for JCORE (Jewish Council For Racial Equality)
AS THE world is so bereft of heroes and inspirational leaders, the passing of Nelson Mandela has inevitably left a gaping hole. With all the wealth of analysis, reportage and reminiscences which will fill our newspapers and TV screens until after Mandela‘s funeral, we will be constantly reminded of the uniqueness of this man. He combined celebrity status with inspirational politics, the likes of which we may never see again.
Unlike some other iconic figures of the 20th century (John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King), he was not violently cut down in his prime. He lived to a good age and, unlike the others, saw his key goal realised. Mandela’s appeal is now recognised as universal, even if some of those expressing admiration for him are only recent converts to his aspirations.
As someone who spent her formative years against the backdrop of apartheid, I’m proud Jews in South Africa played a significant part in the struggle against it. Many Jews outside South Africa also played a prominent role through the anti-apartheid movement and the organisation Jews Against Apartheid here in the UK. Reflecting on his apprenticeship to a Jewish law firm, Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: “In my experience I found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice”.
A number of Jews were also personal friends and allies of Mandela, including members of his defence team in the 1956-61 treason trial and fellow accused Joe Slovo, who later acted as his legal adviser during the Rivonia trial of 1962- 64 which ended in Mandela’s 27-year sentence.
This pride in Jewish involvement in the struggle to end apartheid is tempered, however, by the knowledge that many Jews did not play such a valiant role.
I remember during the heyday of apartheid making assumptions that everyone I met would hold the same view on its evils. But, alas, these assumptions were sometimes unfounded. Visiting South Africa during the controversial UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001, I was struck by fact that such a conference could be taking place at all in what was once the bastion of white supremacy – proof in itself that monumental change was indeed possible.
This incredible transformation to a post- apartheid state was vividly brought home to us when our guide in Cape Town, who was in South African terms a “Cape coloured”, told us as we stood on the pavement that in the old South Africa he would have had to step into the road to make way for us. He then pointed out that the beautiful sandy beach we were looking at had been reserved for whites only, the neighbouring rocky one for the “coloureds” and the even less inviting ones for the Africans.
The list of these absurd and cruel laws which racially segregated the entire population of the country was legion. I had, however, to be wary of feeling too smug.
After all, I came from a country (the US) where institutional racism was so ingrained in some southern states that you’d be hard put to tell the difference between them and apartheid. In 2006 I had the good fortune of shaking hands with Mandela twice at a dinner organised by JCORE’s Black/Asian/Jewish Forum and the Board of Deputies.
I shall always regret that being called away to deal with admin problems meant missing the opportunity to meet him properly.
So what of Mandela’s legacy after the immediacy of his death fades? We would, of course, like some of his magic to stay with us forever, however impossible.
What is possible is to build on the example he personified of reconciliation and his goal of a plural, fair society transcending differences of race, ethnicity, class and gender. Today there are still many who wish to divide us along these lines. Soon we will be asked to vote in the Euro elections, with widespread appeals to xenophobia, egged on by certain sections of the press.
Saying no to the anti-migrant rhetoric –which is pervasive in our society –would be one fitting way to honour Mandela’s legacy.