Getting dressed to attend the Super Sunday fund-raiser for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ this past weekend, I put on blue and white — for Israel. And then I added a Xhosa beaded necklace from South Africa. That was for Nelson Mandela.
I first left South Africa for the United States in 1978, when the African National Congress leader was in jail. Still, Mandela had become an idol to my generation of white, liberal South Africans, though we barely knew what he looked like and knew almost nothing that he’d said. What we did know was that he’d had close relationships with a number of Jews, including those on his legal team when he faced charges of treason. Some went to jail, too, though nothing like the kind of sentence he faced.
Back then, the notion that Mandela might become the president of South Africa — that he would survive jail long enough to do that, and be allowed by the powers-that-be to rise that high — seemed like a pipe dream. That he would live long enough to hand over power, and still stay with us into his dotage — that was beyond a dream.
When Mandela was released in 1990, I watched his walk to freedom on a TV set in my apartment on the East Side of Manhattan, near where I worked at the United Nations. I sat on my sofa alone, sobbing and laughing, and then went out for a celebratory brunch with some American friends who shared my joy. It was hard to believe that long struggle was over.
When he and his equally heroic — if not equally saintly — wife Winnie came to New York, I joined the hordes who flooded into Yankee Stadium to see them. A few days later, a black cab driver, hearing my accent, commented with disdain that as a white South African I must be upset to see Mandela free. When I told him I’d gone to Yankee Stadium because I was so overjoyed, he swiveled around in his seat (to my horror) and reached over to shake my hand. “I’ve got to tell my friends about this,” he said, shaking his head in astonishment.
When Mandela came to the UN, I got to hear him speak (and drew his portrait), and claimed one precious moment of his attention. As he walked past the staff, I called out in a feeble fragment of Xhosa, “Hamba kahle, Tata!” (“Go well, Father!”). He turned in astonishment with that radiant smile. I grinned back like a star-struck teenager.
Like so many, over the following years, I felt pure love in return for the pure love we felt from him. A friend who is a college professor in Colorado said a student broke the news of his death to her in class. “I was in tears,” she said. At Super Sunday, in Scotch Plains, I shared sympathy with fellow ex-pat Simone Klein the way we would commiserate over a beloved family member.
Livingston residents and Greater MetroWest Jewish community leaders Mark and Fran Glajchen came to the United States from South Africa in 2000. Mark, who met Mandela in person in Johannesburg in the early 1990s, said, “He was a magnetic person. You felt drawn to him like you had a connection that is difficult to describe. For sure though it was based on respect and admiration. His smile was also very gentle and lit up his face — just like a friend.”
Asked about him this week, they wrote that so soon after Hanukka, “we can’t help but think of leading lights of the world and those who inspire us. For us one of the brightest lights for South Africa and the world in general has been extinguished. His legacy will, however, live on for us.”
Mixed with our affection was immense gratitude — for the absence of the hatred he could so justifiably have felt, and encouraged others to feel, toward white South Africans. That didn’t mean he wasn’t passionately loyal to his own people.
Just as we have complicated loyalties to America and Israel, and some — like me — also have bonds to other countries, Nelson Mandela had deep and fierce bonds to many groups. First, he was a Xhosa, proud and true; then he was a member of the African National Congress, in whose name he declared his willingness to take up arms and served 27 years in jail. Then he was a South African, a leader for black and white and brown and whatever other shade we come in.
And somehow, he transcended all of that. He seemed as open and warm to rich and poor, black and white, Christian, Jew, Muslim and atheist, all around the world. And while he called for justice for those he saw as suffering, he seemed to condemn no one — maintaining a diplomatic reserve that frustrated those who wanted him to play a more global role in fighting oppression. It was also part of what had him embrace the likes of Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi, expressing his gratitude for their support — and in so doing, infuriating some in the Jewish community.
The Jews who fought for him and with him would have been baffled by that anger. I crossed paths with some of those brave souls, as a teenager visiting homes of older relatives, and later as a young journalist in Cape Town, and I’m sure of this: They knew his values and shared them. Tikun olam and hesed — repairing the world and kindness — were his governing principles. At the same time they didn’t expect him to view the world through Jewish eyes any more than Jews viewed the world as Xhosas.
Mandela wasn’t perfect, and he did his best to convince people he wasn’t a saint. His marriage to Winnie, his second wife, is one of the great romantic tragedies of all time. He wasn’t a perfect parent or grandfather — judging from the disarray and conflict in his family. According to those who served in government with him, he wasn’t a brilliant economist or administrator. But he was the leader a fractured and tragic country needed at a crucial time — a feeling the world community seems to share. He was Tata — father — to all of us.
So thank you to those people at Super Sunday giving their time and energy and money to Jewish causes who noticed my African necklace, and nodded in understanding.