A colossus in our midst

Jews comprised a remarkable proportion of the whites who participated in the anti-apartheid campaign.

A colossus in our midst (photo credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS)
A colossus in our midst
(photo credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS)
There is an incident in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk To Freedom,” which is seemingly inconsequential, yet symbolizes the caliber of leadership of a political giant whose aura bestrode the world.
It encapsulates the qualities which enabled Mandela to emerge from his humble beginnings in an obscure village, refuse to be shackled by a grotesque social and political system and rise to become one of the genuine statesmen of the 20th century.
The year is 1962. Mandela has been sentenced to five years for inciting people to strike and leaving the country without a passport. He and three others are driven overnight from Pretoria to Cape Town, chained inside a small boat, below a port-hole through which warders urinate onto their heads, and ferried to Robben Island, a limestone outcrop 30 kilometers offshore which acquired infamy as South Africa’s Alcatraz.
The prisoners are met by armed guards and burly warders, the leader a sadistic brute who immediately abuses the prisoners, barking instructions in language used to herd cattle and ordering them to run to the prison building.
Mandela instinctively whispers to his fellow-prisoners that if they succumb to the intimidation, they will be permanently subjected to the cruel whims of their captors. Despite the warder threatening to kill him, Mandela takes the lead and not only walks to the prison, but deliberately reduces the pace.
I served as chief sub-editor of The Cape Times, Cape Town’s morning newspaper, during the apartheid era and Nelson Rohilahla Mandela was the unspoken presence in the room.
A key instrument in the government’s strategy of subjugating the black population, while keeping the ruling white sector uninformed about the revolutionary movements fermenting beneath the surface was censorship. It was illegal for newspapers to promote the aims of a “banned” organization or quote or publish photographs of “banned” people and Mandela, the African National Congress and vast numbers of activists and organizations were “banned.”
That meant it was illegal to report anti- apartheid activities. Unless one of the handful of progressive politicians spoke out under the protection of parliamentary privilege, those who were “banned” were effectively confined to a nonexistence.
Yet Mandela was there. Silenced, but casting a giant shadow. And as one of the nation’s anti-apartheid newspapers, we were acutely aware that in our midst was a colossus whose time had to come.
And when it did, it would change South Africa forever.
While the majority of whites and Jews did not join the anti-apartheid campaign, Jews comprised a remarkable proportion of the whites who did participate: 14 of the 23 white defendants in the 1956 Treason Trial were Jews, the African National Congress was represented at the trial by Jewish lawyer Izzy Maisels and all six white defendants in the 1963 Rivonia Trial were Jews.
This meant that Mandela, who was articled to Jewish law firm Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman in the 1940s, had numerous Jewish colleagues in the struggle, including novelist Nadine Gordimer, who wrote part of his speech at the Rivonia Trial; Arthur Chaskalson, his lawyer; Arthur Goldreich, who fought in Israel’s War of Independence and taught Mandela to use a rifle; Harold Wolpe, Denis Goldberg, Harry Schwarz, Albie Sachs, Jules Browde, Ronnie Kasrils, Ruth First and Joe Slovo, whom he lauded as “one of the greatest South African revolutionaries of our times.”
The four-hour address Mandela delivered at the Rivonia Trial stands as one of the great speeches of all time. After recounting tales he heard as a child from tribal elders, the democratic ideals of the African National Congress and the monstrous indignities suffered by his people, he discarded his notes and turned to face Justice Quartus de Wet.
“During my lifetime,” he said, “I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and against black domination.
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.”
This was the same quality of leadership he demonstrated on Robben Island. The same character and conviction propelled him from a timeless riverside village to a place in history for all time.
Vic Alhadeff is former chief sub-editor of The Cape Times and currently chief executive officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney, Australia Twitter: @VicAlhadeff