From the archives

Mandela visits Cape Town shul and reassures Jews on their future

South African president-elect thanks Jewish community for its contribution toward country’s development, community vows support

Nelson Mandela at Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation in 1994 (photo credit: JTA)
Nelson Mandela at Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation in 1994 (photo credit: JTA)

JOHANNESBURG (May. 9, 1994) — The largest synagogue in the Southern hemisphere — Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation — was packed to capacity last Saturday to welcome South African President-elect Nelson Mandela to a Shabbat service there.

As Mandela addressed the congregation on the first Saturday after his election, cheering crowds of all races lined the street outside.

And inside, some members of the congregation were sporting yarmulkes in the black, green and gold colors of the newly empowered African National Congress.

The congregants heard Mandela make an appeal from the pulpit for Jewish expatriates to return to South Africa.

Pointedly excluding aliyah by saying he understands the Jewish community’s commitment to Israel, Mandela said: “We want those who left (for other countries) because of insecurity to come back and to help us to build our country.”

He added that those who do not return should contribute their money and skills to South Africa.

Mandela thanked the Jewish community for its contribution toward the development of South Africa and assured Jews they have nothing to fear from a government of national unity.

He said he felt an affinity with the Jewish community, since it was a Jewish firm that gave him an apprenticeship in the early days of his law career, when discrimination was rife.

He also said that he had befriended his Jewish defense counsel during the treason trial which led to his imprisonment in the 1950s and that he was still in contact with the lawyer.

He stated that he recognizes the right to existence of the State of Israel, along with the right of Palestinians to live in their own homeland.

He noted that he considered it significant that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat last week signed an agreement in Cairo implementing Palestinian self rule — the same week that South Africa elected its new leadership.

At the reception following the service, some of the younger members of the congregation raised clenched fists in solidarity with the ANC, while the shul choir led in the singing of the country’s new national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ IAfrika.”

Mandela later addressed the media from the steps of the synagogue, where he was flanked by Israeli Ambassador Alon Liel; South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris; the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Jack Steinhorn; and the national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Mervyn Smith.

Mandela said that the prophets of doom, who had predicted widespread anarchy should an ANC government come to power, have been proved wrong.

Mandela also stated that the empowerment of the country’s black, colored and Indian population will not be at the expense of the white community.

An elated Smith, who later described the morning’s events to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as “a high point” and “a peak in Jewry’s relationship with the new South Africa,” pledged the Jewish community’s support to Mandela.

“The Jewish community of this country is committed to playing a full role in supporting you and the elected government in establishing a non-racist, non-sexist, democratic South Africa,” said Smith, addressing Mandela.

“The determination of South Africans from all walks of life to make the transition work was never more manifest than in the last week,” Smith said.

The Board of Deputies and the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation each made a presentation to Mandela “as a token of respect and admiration on his election as a first State President of a new democratic South Africa.”

Mandela was scheduled to be present at talks later this week between Israeli President Ezer Weizman and Arafat, both of whom traveled to South Africa for Tuesday’s inauguration ceremonies.

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