SYDNEY - Most South Africans remember where they were on June 16, 1976 - the day the Soweto Uprising exploded in the streets of the Johannesburg township.
Richard Shakenovsky, then just 19, needs no reminder.
He witnessed it first-hand, clothed in a police uniform, armed with a gun, having requested police service instead of mandatory military service.
“I was posted to Soweto on the day it started,” Shakenovsky told Haaretz on Sunday, the day Nelson Mandela was laid to rest in Qunu, South Africa.
“It was horrific. A lot of people were shot by police. I witnessed many, many deaths - too many to want to talk about. We’re not talking rubber bullets either; it was the real thing.”
Triggered by a government decree to introduce Afrikaans, the mother tongue of the racist regime, as the language of instruction in schools, the riots left hundreds dead, and marked the beginning of the end of apartheid.
But one incident of brutality pushed Shakenovsky beyond the brink.
“There were 24 policemen in a big truck. You’d shoot and then put on the truck the people who were shot. There were no ambulances, no fire brigades, no reporters. We carried the victims. On one occasion a policeman did something terrible to a boy who’d been shot in the stomach. I lost it. I stood up and said, ‘No, no.’They called me ‘Kaffir boetie,’ or lover of blacks. That’s when I got out.”
Like many South African Jews during apartheid, Shakenovsky enjoyed the luxuries of apartheid. But they were cloaked in guilt.
“I think any liberal thinker would tell you we were absolutely privileged. But for the police experience I would never have known what was going on in the townships. We had a very privileged, easy upbringing with maids and gardeners and workers at a very low wage. I don’t think there was a day as I got older that I went through without guilt, seeing the shantytowns and beggars on streets. If you have any kind of moral feelings for others you can only feel guilty,” he said. “We lived luxuriously but with guilt.”
Mandela was the reason post-apartheid South Africa didn’t implode, he added.
“I was part of a regime that was the very apartheid that Mandela was able to peacefully transcend from what could have been a bloodbath.”
Shakenovsky met Madiba several times - in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Sydney - because he trained blind black runners for marathons to raise money for HIV awareness.
“He invited us to meet him inside his presidential office in Pretoria where he was inaugurated and where he was lying in state in the last week,” Shakenovsky recalled.
“When we walked in and he stood up behind his desk, the memories of Soweto came rushing back.” But he said seeing Mandela just months after he had become president “filled my heart with such happiness.”
It was, however, short-lived.
“We left in January 1996, in the middle of his reign, with a very heavy heart. I thought if I don’t do it at 38 I won’t do it. We were going to Israel, we’d bought in Hod Hasharon but we changed our mind at the last minute and came to Australia.”
Shakenovsky, 56, now lives in Sydney, where he runs a legal practice. “I decided to leave because I didn’t want to grow up in a country where there was so much violence and I couldn’t see an end to it. Mandela would be the only reason I would have stayed. But I knew this was not where I wanted to raise my three kids, in a post-Mandela era.”
Like Shakenovsky, Jack Hochfeld also abandoned his beloved country after the end of apartheid, joining more than 15,000 ex-South African Jews who now live in Australia.
The corruption and crime of the post-Mandela era prompted his departure, he said.
“I was fully committed,” Hochfeld told Haaretz this week. “I thought we could make a difference. Now when there should be a future there isn’t one.”
Hochfeld, 61, has been living in Sydney less than three years. “The sad thing for me is Mandela’s passing is a reminder for me of what could have been. The Jews were prepared to stay there. From within we were doing change. Yes, they profited but you are providing people with jobs, you were growing them as people."
"I never approved of what went on,” Hochfeld remarked. “I was never going to vote for ANC then or now. I’ve been in opposition all my life.”
But he added: “I don’t think they can do it. They’ve made the country ungovernable.”
Hochfeld has mixed emotions on Madiba: “He was wonderful and a great, great man. Having said that, he was also a Communist and a terrorist and friends with Gaddafi and Arafat.”
But his promise during his 1994 inauguration address of a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world,” hasn’t been fulfilled, Hochfeld added.
“When we watched ‘Invictus,’ it’s such an uplifting movie and I felt dreadful after because by the time it was released that promise had already dissipated.
The regime that’s in power is more racist than the old one,” Hochfeld said. “Mandela was a great figurehead. Mbeki was dreadful. Zuma is worse.”