South African-born Israelis Say Mandela's Legacy Betrayed by Pretoria's anti-Israel Stance

Immigrants from South Africa mourn Mandela's death and criticize the government's antagonism toward Israel.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten
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Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

South African-born Israelis reacted to the news of Nelson Mandela’s death Thursday night with sadness, pride in the legacy he leaves behind and dismay over what many say is the South African government’s antagonism of Israel, which they see as a betrayal of that legacy.

“When Nelson Mandela was in power, South Africa was far more balanced in its approach to Israel,” said Dorron Kline, deputy director of Telfed - The South African Zionist Federation (Israel). “I think it was his personality and his outlook that kept things balanced. We’ll feel his loss particularly in that sphere.”

Kline and other expatriates told Haaretz that they believe Mandela’s successors in the African National Congress have created an anti-Israel atmosphere in South Africa, citing several recent incidents. Last year, South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry issued a ruling requiring goods imported from the West Bank to be labeled as products of “the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” prompting protests from the South African Jewish community (the wording was eventually changed). In 2010, the government recalled its ambassador to Israel following the Gaza flotilla raid. In 2001, South Africa hosted the United Nations World Conference against Racism, from which Israel and the United States withdrew over language in a proposed declaration equating Zionism with racism. In August, supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement sang “shoot the Jew” while protesting a performance by an Israeli jazz musician at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

“The ANC is strongly anti-Israel,” said Shely Cohen, a member of Ra’anana’s large South African expat community. “They’ve put South African Jews in a very uncomfortable position. That’s not Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela was about forgiveness and hope, and I don’t believe that they are really living out his legacy.”

Gideon Shimoni, professor emeritus of Israel-Diaspora relations at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said the ANC has adopted a hostile attitude toward Israel because it supports the Palestinian cause “and because it sees what we’re doing in our colonization of the West Bank.”

While he vehemently disputes the charge leveled by ANC representatives and other critics that Israel is an apartheid state, Shimoni believes that continued settlement construction represents “the exact opposite of what Mandela stood for.”

“He fully understood that Zionism was a struggle for Jewish national liberation, but he did not believe that it should be at the expense of the Palestinian national movement,” said Shimoni, who grew up in Johannesburg and immigrated to Israel in 1961.

According to Kline of Telfed, Mandela shared a close friendship with PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and sympathized with the Palestinian cause, but he never isolated Israel for having supported the apartheid regime. In fact, Mandela sat down with Israel’s then-President Ezer Weizman and Arafat in his first meeting after being sworn in as president of South Africa. “He was a man who just wanted to see peace between the Israelis and Palestinians,” Kline said.

In the weeks leading up to Mandela’s death on Thursday, at the age of 95, South African immigrants shared their favorite memories of the iconic leader.

Kerri Baruch was in the stands at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which Mandela attended wearing the green and gold jersey of the Springboks, South Africa’s national team and a symbol of Afrikaner culture.

“It was the first rugby match I ever went to, and the person I was sitting next to was this Afrikaner in his safari suit — the epitome of apartheid,” Baruch recalled. When Mandela entered the stadium, she said she expected the Afrikaner to curse him. Instead, he began to shout his name and weep.

“There was such a feeling of jubilation, with blacks and whites together, and that was because of Nelson Mandela,” Baruch said. “He’s a saint. He’s right up there with the Dali Lama.”

For Baruch, who moved to Israel in 2002, the most disturbing aspect of the post-Mandela era has been the government’s failure to address pressing social and health issues. “It broke my heart to know that Mandela had to see everything that he tried to change remain unchanged,” she said. “The people who fought for freedom are raising their grandchildren because their children are being wiped out by AIDS.”

Cohen, the Ra’anana resident who criticized the ANC, recalled voting for Mandela in the 1994 presidential election — from Israel. “We stood in a queue for hours at the Tel Aviv exhibition grounds,” she said. “South Africans came from all over the country. Everyone was uncertain about what was going to happen the next day, whether there would be a bloodbath. But Nelson Mandela led the way with such purpose and wisdom. I believe that it’s because of his leadership that South Africa had a peaceful transition.”

Andi Saitowitz, another Ra’anana resident, said she is proud to hail from South Africa and hopes the country’s leaders “will carry on the values that Mandela stood for,” like tolerance and equality. “But the future is very uncertain,” she added.

The chairman of Telfed, Dave Bloom, said the organization will take some time to decide how best to honor Mandela.

Flowers, candles and condolence messages in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton, Johannesburg.Credit: AP

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