Hundreds of mourners gathered at Jerusalem's Har Hamenuhot cemetery Thursday morning to bury Cyril Harris, the former chief rabbi of South Africa whose body was flown from Cape Town after he died of cancer Tuesday.
Harris, credited by many with aiding the transition process in South Africa from apartheid to a free democracy, was a close friend of former South African president Nelson Mandela and one of the only people to speak at Mandela's inauguration in 1994.
In a statement, Mandela called Harris a friend and an "exceptional person." "In our memory he shall live on as a great South African patriot. In that difficult challenge of our transition and early democracy to pull and keep our country together he played a central role that will be remembered in our history," Mandela said.
Among those who came to pay their respects were former chief Sephardi rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron and Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who succeeded Harris as chief rabbi of South Africa this year. Nearly everyone there was either a current or former South African.
In his eulogy, Harris's son, Rabbi Dr. Michael Harris of London, said the family advised Harris not to leave England for South Africa in 1988, when the racial struggle was raging. "But he felt that only on that big stage, at that historic moment, could he fulfill his mission," the younger Harris said.
He added that his father's spiritual approach was a rare combination of Jewish particularism and universalism. "There are many rabbis who love the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the People of Israel but whose love stops there. And then there are some [Jews] who have great ideals but no love for Torah. My father had both. He was uncompromising in his Jewish way of life, but he felt that [the Jewish people's] love really needed to extend to all of humanity."
In his eulogy, South African Ambassador to Israel Fumi F. Gqiba said Harris's death "caused our young democratic state to weep," and that "a part of South Africa lies with him." In an interview later, Gqiba described Harris as "a prophet," calling him a bold and consistent voice against the old apartheid system. "He was a hero among the struggling masses, and he earned it," the ambassador said.
In his statement, South Africa's first black president Nelson Mandela expressed sympathy for Harris's "family and the entire Jewish community as they mourn the death of a husband, father and spiritual leader. We know that they will take solace from the sure knowledge that millions of others mourn and feel with them.
"We today remember a great spiritual leader, a man of exceptional humaneness, one who has made his mark in the social transformation of South Africa. And in African fashion we say: Hamba kahle, Cyril."
Hamba kahle means "go well," or "rest in peace."