South African Jews in Australia Recall Life in the Shadow of Apartheid

Expats open up about Nelson Mandela's views on Israel, and how he came to be seen as the 'Christ figure of the century.'

SYDNEY – Although most South African Jews did not actively oppose apartheid, some expats now living in Australia who did rail against the regime spoke out this week following the death of Nelson Mandela.

Rabbi Richard Lampert, who left Johannesburg for Sydney in 1977 in the wake of the Soweto riots, eulogized Mandela on Saturday at North Shore Temple Emanuel. “The man was not the father of South Africa,” Lampert told Haaretz. “He was the father of Africa. There was no leader of his stature in all of Africa that had his vision and his sense of forgiveness.”

Mandela’s view of the Middle East had to be understood within its context, he added. “When Mandela was free he became close with people like [Libya’s Muammar] Gadhafi and the Jewish community was very upset.

“But we have to remember Israel supported the apartheid regime and we can’t really wonder that Mandela should become close with people who befriended the South African freedom movement.”

Lampert said he learned of Mandela’s imprisonment while in Israel in June 1964. “I had a copy of Time magazine which I overturned into the Dead Sea and it became caked with salt,” he recalled. “Within that issue there was an article on Mandela being sentenced to life imprisonment.

“I still have that salt-encrusted copy of Time,” said Lampert, whose home was raided shortly after he distributed Kol Nidrei pamphlets in 1976 citing the “sin we have committed by keeping silent in the face of injustice.”

Robin Margo, a former student leader in South Africa, referenced a paper he presented on Jewish responses to apartheid at the Limmud festival in Sydney this year, saying it was “deeply ironic” that the first half of “Jewish Memories of Mandela,” a 2011 book by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, was dedicated to Jewish activists who were “shunned by the organized Jewish community at the time.”

“People who were shunned then are held up now as virtuous Jews who bring honor to us all,” Margo said.

Professor Colin Tatz, who left Johannesburg for Australia following the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, said the Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 – at which all six whites who were indicted were Jews – stood out.

“Jews were singled out for this particular trial, allowing Justice Minister Balthazar Vorster to declare that Jews were only about three percent of the white population but 100 percent of the country’s ‘saboteurs,'” Tatz wrote in an article to be published in this week’s Australian Jewish News.

“The prosecutor was the notorious Dr. Percy Yutar, a devout Jews. The government sat back and watched the Jew vigorously prosecuting the Jews.”

An expert in race relations in South Africa and Australia, Tatz said: “Mandela survived one of the 20th century’s worst regimes, barring Nazi Germany. He outlived it and became, in so many ways, the Christ figure of the century.”

Neither he nor his colleagues foresaw the non-violent postscript to apartheid, he added. “We could only see an apocalypse, and every milepost and signpost was plainly visible.”

Hilton Immerman, a Durban-born academic who emigrated to Australia in 1977, agreed. “We all believed that bloody revolution was inevitable in South Africa. And, indeed, this may well have happened had it not been for this remarkable man.”

Immerman said after Mandela’s release he “seriously considered” the possibility of returning to “try to play a small part in helping rebuild the ‘Rainbow Nation.’

“Had we not had children at the time, we may well have done so.”

Now chief executive of the Shalom Institute at the University of New South Wales, Immerman added: “There are few people whom I regard as heroes – but Mandela certainly stands out as being without parallel.”

A tribute to Mandela will be held this Saturday at the bust of the former president inside the University of New South Wales. Coordinated by author Joanne Fedler, the memorial will be addressed by lawyer Andrea Durbach, director of the Center for Human Rights, who represented 25 black defendants in the notorious Upington trial in the 1980s. Both Fedler and Durbach are among the 15,000-plus Jewish South Africans who now live in Australia. 

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff, the chief sub-editor of “The Cape Times” during the latter part of the apartheid era, noted many of Mandela’s Jewish associates, including Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, who wrote sections of his speech at the Rivonia Trial.

“The four-hour closing address that Mandela gave at the Rivonia Trial – which saw him jailed for life – stands as one of the greatest speeches of all time,” Alhadeff wrote in an article published in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald.

“During my lifetime,” he quoted Mandela as saying, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic, free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.

“But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Robert Goot, the newly elected president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, recalled raising some of Mandela’s “questionable” attitudes toward Israel when he visited Sydney.

But Goot added: “He was a great friend of South African Jewry and his indomitable spirit of generosity and magnanimity extended to all of humankind.”

Australia’s 500,000-plus Aboriginal community revered Madiba as an icon of resistance, said Craig Cromelin, chairman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council.

“We’ve got our own history of deep racial injustices here in Australia, some that continue to this day,” he said in a statement. “And it’s icons like Mandela that gives us all continuing hope that change isn’t just a dream.”

AFP
Henry Benjamin
Henry Benjamin
Henry Benjamin
Henry Benjamin