About 150 diplomats and immigrants from South Africa crowded into a huge tent set up outside the residence of Pretoria’s ambassador to Israel on Wednesday to pay tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.
Conspicuously absent from the jam-packed event, which included an interfaith prayer service and a tribute to the deceased South African leader by the dean of the diplomatic corps in Israel, were any representatives of the cabinet or Knesset.
Sisa Ngombane, the South African ambassador to Israel, told Haaretz that five Knesset members had notified him that they would attend the ceremony, and he was therefore surprised that none had shown up.
The ambassador’s residence is located in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, just a few doors down from the home of Likud cabinet minister and presidential hopeful, Silvan Shalom.
The only Israeli politician in attendance at the event was former member of Knesset, Talab al-Sana, the longest serving Israeli Arab parliamentarian. “I felt obligated to be here at this moment and pay my respects to a man who was a phenomenon and a symbol and contributed not only to South Africa but to all of mankind,” he told Haaretz. “As a Palestinian, I have special regard for his contribution.”
Al-Sana said he was not surprised to find himself the only Israeli politician in the crowd. “Unfortunately, darkness doesn’t like light, and that is what Mandela symbolized – all those things that are an antithesis to the values Israel upholds.”
David Kaplan, the former chairman of the South African Zionist Federation in Israel, said he was moved that such a large crowd had made time in the middle of a very rainy day to pay respects to South Africa’s first black president and the leader of its anti-Apartheid movement. “Despite the lousy weather, people felt the need to come together to mourn Mandela’s death and celebrate his legacy,” he said.
The South African ambassador to Israel opened his address by singing a popular folk song. He was joined by other South Africans in the crowd, several of whom broke out in tears as they sang.
“He rose out of nothing to embrace the hopes and wishes unfulfilled by his parents and a nation,” Ngombane eulogized Mandela.
Henri Etoundi Essomba, the ambassador from Cameroon and the dean of the diplomatic corps in Israel, delivered words of condolence on behalf of the entire diplomatic community.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss, director of the Jewish Outreach Center in Raanana, said his hope was that “the leaders of this turbulent region should be infused with some of the traits that made Mandela a great leader.”
Itzhak Gerberg, a representative of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former ambassador to Zimbabwe, said that “if there ever was a leader who is entitled to be an international icon of freedom and peace, this was Mandela.”
Many of the guests lined up to sign a memorial book after the ceremony. One young woman, who noted that she had immigrated to Israel from South Africa in 2009, wrote that Mandela was “the man responsible for making me a proud South African.”
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