Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the iconic leader of our nation, has died. To South Africans — including Jews — he will always be much more than merely the first democratically elected president. He will be forever remembered as the “father of the nation” as he was truly the architect of the inclusive South Africa we know today.
‘Tata’ Madiba, as he was universally known, was an iconic figure to young South Africans, black and white, Jewish, Christian and Muslim. He was a man who exemplifies strength, compassion and kindness. He had an unshakeable will to right a most profound injustice and bring equality to his fellow countrymen. He became mythic within his own lifetime, something few people ever accomplish, however distinguished and gifted they may be.
I could not comprehend the magnitude and meaning of his release from prison in February 1990 for I was only three and a half years old. But my parents imparted to me a sense of the joy, importance and history of the occasion.
To this day, I still remember my excitement as we watched on television the triumphant figure of Madiba greeting the crowds, arms raised, radiant smile across his face. My heart beat fast and I felt the sense of a grandfatherly figure.
But I also knew this man was not like other men. I was too young to fully understand the step our country was taking but even then I knew it was something incredibly important I was witnessing.
Four years later in April 1994, when the first democratic elections took place in South Africa, I had an awareness of South Africa’s terrible past and how it mirrored the Jews’ persecution through the ages. It was a thrilling thing to know I would see those elections firsthand and although I was not eight years old, my fervent wish was that I too could vote with everyone else.
I counted the days to 2004 when I would turn 18 and be able to vote myself for the first time. The excitement as the votes were counted and what we all knew in our hearts was finally confirmed — Madiba was our president!
South Africa was born anew and the man we all loved was at last where he was meant to be. After 27 years imprisoned in appalling conditions, he was free, we were free and he was leading us into the future.
It was an exhilarating time and he was central to our joy.
Madiba firmly espoused the concept of the “Rainbow Nation” — and for him Jewish South Africans were definitely a part of that rainbow. During the anti-apartheid struggle, many of the white people who fought alongside him were Jewish and he was well aware of this. He kept a close relationship with the late Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris.
Harris spoke when Madiba was inaugurated in 1994 and gave a blessing to Madiba and his wife, Graca Machel, before they were married in 1998. The couple were married on a Shabbat and Madiba made a point of making time for Rabbi Harris to bless him on the Friday before. It was an example of the respect he had for Jews and Rabbi Harris to whom he referred to as “my Rabbi.”
There is no doubt in my mind that the Jews of South Africa are also Madiba’s people.
Madiba was not perfect. No man, or woman, is. He was a man with an infinite capacity to love and forgive, with a wisdom that blazed brighter than any imprisonment could dull. His leadership as a politician and statesman were incredible and his example as a humanitarian and philanthropist were inspiring beyond reckon.
As Mandela prepares to move on, we must prepare for his golden legacy of change to leave us. I know I speak for my fellow South Africans when I say my heart is already broken.
He is not just a political “father of the nation.” He is the father and grandfather to all of us.
Go in peace, Tata Madiba. You have taught the youth of your country well and we are so grateful for your overwhelming example.