CAPE TOWN — Since 95-year-old former South African president Nelson Mandela was laid to rest at his ancestral home of Qunu, the small rural village in the country’s Eastern Cape Province, December 15, friends and associates from his early Struggle years until the present have been fondly remembering the impact he had on their lives. In recent days, The Times of Israel has met with several of them.
Fellow Rivonia Trialist Denis Goldberg (80) treasures the eight months he spent with Mandela during the 1963-1964 hearing in which leading opponents of apartheid were on trial for their lives. Goldberg was the only white person to be convicted and jailed for life at the conclusion of the trial, though others had been charged. It is noteworthy that of the 19 arrested at Liliesleaf Farm hideout in Rivonia in 1963, all six whites were Jewish.
At Rivonia, ten leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) – the country’s liberation movement – were tried for acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system. He and Mandela “met just about every day, in consultations with our lawyers about our defense beforehand,” Goldberg said. “And then during the trial, of course, we saw each other, during breaks we were together.” The two were not held in the same part of the prison because of the government’s apartheid policy of separating blacks and whites.
“Nelson played a key role, not just because he was accused number one, but as part of the defense,” Goldberg recalled. Mandela was a trained lawyer and studied at the University of Witwatersrand, where he was the only native African student. “Together with [fellow Struggle stalwart] Walter Sisulu, he set the tone of what our defense would be.
“The apartheid government was attempting to show what terrorists we were and we would turn it around into a show trial and show that the apartheid state was the criminal.”
Goldberg remembered the “dead silence” at the conclusion of Mandela’s famous four-hour speech from the dock just before sentencing, during which he declared himself prepared to die for his ideals. “It was the way it was delivered – a quiet statement of principle and very effective, because we all knew what was coming,” he said, referring to the expectation that the accused would receive the death sentence.
“It was a moment of tremendous elation, I have to tell you, because of the sheer stature of the man – it’s not just his tallness and his elegance, but his whole bearing of pride, of determination. To my knowledge, he never once relied on his royal lineage to bolster his authority.
‘It was a moment of tremendous elation because of the sheer stature of the man’
“He relied on the fact that he was an intellectual, a reader, an analyst and very persuasive. I liked him for his smile, his cheerfulness, his determination that we would be free, never giving up,” Goldberg recalled.
“A thoroughly modern person, capable of not standing still in his thinking; calling for an armed struggle and having achieved the point of negotiations, saying, ‘Let’s stop fighting, let’s negotiate. That’s what we promised to do in 1961, so now let’s do it.’ I found the principled steadfastness of the man tremendously admirable.”
Goldberg last met Mandela over lunch more than a year ago and experienced his “fondness for recalling old times and old friends.” A standout memory for Goldberg, however, goes back to the time of the Rivonia Trial when Mandela waved his finger at him during a legal consultation, saying: “Denis, when you talk communism to our people, you have to talk about South Africa and not European social development – our people know nothing about it.”
“I was convinced he was sure that they were going to hang him and he wanted me to understand and pass on his message that when it comes to political theory, it has to relate to our conditions,” said Goldberg.
As Mandela lay critically ill in hospital some six months ago, his wife, Graça Machel, invited fellow Struggle stalwarts, including Goldberg, to his bedside.
Mandela and the Jewish community
Mervyn Smith, who led the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the 70,000-strong community’s umbrella organization, at the time of Mandela’s presidency (1994 -1999), described the statesman’s relationship with the community as “very warm.” On the many occasions that Mandela met with the board, the talk was “direct and open,” Smith recalled.
Smith recalled the 1994 opening of an exhibition on Anne Frank, where Mandela said that the young girl’s diary was an inspiration to him and his colleagues during their imprisonment on Robben Island, the former leper colony and prison where the apartheid government’s black political prisoners were incarcerated and where Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years behind bars.
“He’d had a very meaningful interaction with Jews during his professional apprenticeship [with a Jewish law firm in the early 1940s, a time when it was extremely difficult for a black person to obtain such a position], during the Struggle and he had always had great respect for the Jewish community,” said Smith.
Mandela and Afrika Tikkun
At the dawn of democracy in 1994, businessman and philanthropist Dr. Bertie Lubner, together with South Africa’s late chief rabbi Cyril Harris, founded Afrika Tikkun – translated as “helping transformation” — the Jewish community’s initiative for the country’s disadvantaged. In 1995, Mandela became its patron-in-chief.
The umbrella organization sought to coordinate and build on pre-existing Jewish endeavors as well as establishing new ones, undertaking a variety of community-building projects. After a visit to one of its first projects at Rietfontein, Mandela declared: “Today I have seen a miracle.”
Virgin land had been made arable using a pump system powered by children playing on a merry-go-round. In addition to producing crops for the local community, the project included the installation of running water and showers at the local school.
“(Afrika) Tikkun demonstrates in a practical and sustainable manner what can be done by limited resources, great commitment and passion,” Mandela said at the time.
In addition to Mandela, Harris and Lubner meeting bimonthly in this regard, Lubner had “a very personal” relationship with the statesman “on a number of issues.”
One of his most memorable moments, Lubner recalled, was when he and two others had the privilege of taking Mandela, then-South African president F W de Klerk and leading Zulu politician Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 1991, following Mandela’s release from 27 years’ imprisonment the previous year.
“That was in itself just the most unbelievable moment,” Lubner marveled, “because that was on world television. It was the first time they were exposed to the Western world and that the three of them had shared the same platform.”
“We were also able to introduce to Mandela and others from the ANC world leaders of China and India. [At that time] the country was debating whether to go ahead with the Freedom Charter – the 1955 statement of core principles of the ANC and its allies — which talked about nationalization.” The policy was subsequently abandoned.
One of Mandela’s most endearing characteristics, said Lubner, was that his “care for one child was as important as caring for a nation, because his theme was that things come from the heart, not the head. If you’ve got a desire to see one child’s life being improved upon… that’s indicative of the guy.”
Lubner recalled a mother whose child was dying of facial paralysis appealing to Mandela for help, and his abiding concern, which led to the child being saved.
There was only one surgeon in the world in Toronto who could attend to the problem, but the mother couldn’t afford to take her child there for treatment. Mandela had a photograph of this child on his desk that the mother had sent him with her appeal.
Just before the end of his term of office, when he was about to embark on an overseas tour, Mandela phoned Lubner, saying: “You’ve got to help me – I’m not sleeping. In the morning, I get up and I see this picture and I’m doing nothing about it and now I’m going overseas. You can use my name, by the way,” the statesman added.
“I got hold of my son, Marc,” Lubner related, “who in two-twos managed to get hold of this surgeon who agreed to come out with a whole team from John Hopkins [Hospital in the States]. They performed the operation in Johannesburg over two six-month periods.
“They saved this child’s life and they taught the surgeons here how to do the operation.”
This led to the creation of what the Lubner family has called The Smile Foundation, which operates in seven hospitals on children who have who have got facial deformities and burns.
“Hundreds and hundreds of kids are treated every single month of the year, going back all those years, because of the initiative of one man who was more concerned about one child than anything else. That is typical of a great person – not just looking for the big issues, but a lot of little small things all added together, that make up a picture. That was Mandela.”
Lubner noted as another major attribute that in all their discussions, the former statesman “never expressed a bad word,” though he may have been upset at the way he was treated in prison. “It was always the theme of reconciliation.”
When Mandela travelled to Australia on behalf of Tikkun, he wanted to try to persuade the Australian government to adopt a different attitude toward the Aboriginal community, to recognize them as people and give them opportunities, according to Lubner. “So he didn’t only just worry about the South Africans – he wanted to look at reconciliation around the world.”
When Lubner (82) was seriously ill in hospital following a quintuple bypass operation some years ago, he heard a familiar voice and then saw Mandela before him. “I was certain that I was hallucinating,” he said earnestly.
“He came and he sat next to me – he had just that morning come from overseas. He went home and showered, had breakfast and came to the hospital to see me,” Lubner said, recalling the “absolute uproar” the visit had caused in the hospital.
Lubner was finding it impossible to get a word in edgeways as Mandela relayed details of his trip. Eventually Mandela – who was 12 years his senior — put his hand on Lubner’s shoulder and said: “Young man, when you come to me, you do all the talking. When I come to you, I do the talking!”