A native of South Africa, Rabbi Robert S. Leib of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington, recalls a privileged childhood without ever hearing the name of the man who would save his country.
By: Rabbi Robert S. Leib
The name of my public high school in Cape Town was “Sea Point Boys High School.” I was there from 1972 to 1976. Founded in 1884, it was — and remains — a neatly packed conglomeration of interlinking buildings around a large, rectangular quadrangle with an impressive Colonial-style facade and red tile roofs.
We were small in number: There were probably no more than about 500 students in all. A strict dress code was enforced. In summer, we wore a khaki colored safari suit, high stockings with black shoes and a large straw boater (think Maurice Chevalier!) perched precariously on our small heads. In winter, we wore grey slacks, a white shirt with tie and a black blazer proudly embossed with our school’s coat of arms and motto: “Laborare Est Orare,” “To Work Is To Pray.”
The demographic makeup of the student body was entirely homogenous: all white and all male and, given its enviable geographic location in the heart of an affluent and beautiful seaside suburb, boasted a disproportionately large Jewish population. Sea Point is the Miami Beach of Cape Town — a long, meandering row of fashionable high-rise apartment complexes along Beach Road interspersed with rolling green lawns and palm trees abutting glistening white sand beaches and the rolling blue surf of the cold Atlantic Ocean. Behind the apartments, sloping gently up a mountain called “Lions Head,” were a large number of opulent homes. Now called “Sea Point High School,” with its co-ed and racially diverse, multicultural faculty and student body, the school is located on an entire block between Beach Road and Main Road. Yes, there were many days when it was very difficult to concentrate on any kind of school work.
Our gaze was often averted as we looked out our classroom windows only to see the familiar and beloved sights and the sounds of a carefree, wistful Cape Peninsula beckoning us to come out and play. And from those windows, in the not so far distant background, we could also see Robben Island. We knew little if anything about this relatively small outcrop of stone and dunes — once a leper colony — barely seven miles off shore, other than the repeated attempts by so many political prisoners over the years to escape — almost always unsuccessfully — by swimming that perilous and dangerous shark-infested sea. Cape Town’s Alcatraz might as well have been a million light years away. It was forbidden territory to ordinary South Africans who had little if any idea what role it served.
And so, truth be told, even though we could clearly see its topographical contours with the naked eye from our privileged vantage point, we never gave it another thought. Little did we know that it was an infamous penal colony for the state’s worst and most dangerous offenders, most notably one Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, otherwise known as prisoner # 46664.
You might be incredulous but, in all honesty, growing up as a young Capetonian, I had no knowledge of the man who would eventually be responsible for almost single-handedly saving an entire country from itself, despite itself. Indeed, the name meant little if anything to me. How could it have if the Censorship Bureau made sure that the devious, nefarious and subversive political exploits of Nelson Mandela were conveniently excised from all newspapers, magazines, school books, movies and radio broadcasts? Throughout my high school days and while an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town, Mandela was rarely if ever mentioned by name. Banished to a harsh, forbidden outcrop of rock, he was persona non grata. Out of sight and out of mind.
It was only when I left the Republic in 1980 to study abroad in London at the Leo Baeck College that I began to hear faint whispers of the man. Once I returned to Cape Town, in 1986, after a brief stint in the United States, currents of civil unrest were beginning to ripple throughout the country, particularly up north in Johannesburg. The three years that my wife, Randy, and I spent down south in Cape Town, the so-called “Mother City” — from 1986 to 1989 — were marked by periods of political protests and demonstrations that were becoming increasingly more frequent and volatile.
The then-prime minister, P.W. Botha, failed miserably to quell the unrest. He had the ability to extend the hand of reconciliation to the country’s jailed black consciousness leaders but was unsuccessful. That highly controversial decision would be left to his successor, F.W. De Klerk, who eventually released Mandela from his 27 years of solitary confinement, the first 18 of which were spent on Robben Island.
Since Randy and I left Cape Town in 1989 to return to the United States, I did not witness, first-hand, the climactic transition from white minority to black majority rule. Nelson Mandela’s highly publicized release from the Viktor Verster Prison on Feb. 11, 1990, in the glare of the world’s media and following the very first multiracial election in the country’s history, his subsequent meteoric ascension to the presidency in 1994 could only be viewed from afar with breathless astonishment. It truly marked the dawn of a new, liberated, democratic, post-apartheid South Africa compared with the pariah nation that I was born and raised in.
Mandela’s government focused on dismantling the appalling legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality and fostering racial reconciliation through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
From all accounts, his initial relationship — as president — with the Jewish community was tenuous at best. He was quick to draw comparisons between the suffering of South African blacks at the hands of their white oppressors with the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of their Israeli occupiers. From what I recall, relations between the Mandela government and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies were strained and tense but, over the years, it appears that an amicable working relationship has finally been established with Mandela’s successors.
Earlier this year, the board issued a statement expressing sincere concern for the health and well-being of Mandela. The statement was entitled: “Mandela: A Leader Loved, Trusted and Revered.” On the other hand, Mandela’s warm and enthusiastic embrace of a host of Arab world leaders, including Yasser Arafat and Moammar Gaddafi, hardly engendered any goodwill within the rank and file of the established Jewish community which, historically, has always maintained a very strong pro-Zionist ideology and a proud, unwavering commitment to the Jewish state.
Mandela did acknowledge that, throughout his personal and political life, he owed a debt of gratitude to a host of South African Jews, though he lamented the fact that the Jewish community, per se, had not done more to advocate for the end of apartheid. He once worked as an articled clerk at the law firm of Wilkin, Sidelsky and Edelman, run by the liberal Lazar Sidelsky who took a keen interest in the education of blacks. Nat Bregman, a self-proclaimed communist, was his first white friend.
But there’s no doubt that his greatest champion throughout the long ordeal of his imprisonment was the intrepid Helen Suzman, at one point the lone voice in the opposition Progressive Party. I’ll never forget that one day, while serving Temple Israel, the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation, from 1986-1989, I received an unexpected call from Mrs Suzman. She was about to unleash yet another one of her blistering attacks on the corrupt and inept policies of P.W. Botha’s administration and she wanted to include in her formal remarks a well-known quote from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, but had forgotten the precise language. Could I help her? I was happy to oblige: “It’s not your obligation to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it, altogether.”
I reminded a much older, long-retired Helen Suzman about that previous telephonic encounter when I had the privilege of hosting her at Beth Am many years ago on the occasion of her receiving a distinguished award from the the Jewish Community Relations Council. Unlike too many Jewish communal leaders in South Africa who, at the time, preferred to maintain the status quo, Helen Suzman wasn’t afraid to rock the proverbial boat. She was either revered or reviled for her persistent, unapologetic, robust anti-apartheid work. There’s no doubt that, within the corridors of political power, she was a great asset to Mandela during his long incarceration even if they harbored fundamental disagreements between them.
Now, the father of the so-called “Rainbow Nation” is dead. Cry The Beloved Country. “Madiba’s” extraordinary legacy of racial integration, national reconciliation and social justice will forever live on in the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. It is doubtful that we will ever see the likes of South Africa’s “MLK” again. Like the biblical Joseph who, after his imprisonment, rose to the highest levels of power — second only in command to Pharaoh, we are told — so we are left to marvel at the truly unbelievable rise to power of prisoner #46664 who strode the world’s stage like a colossus.
As a former South African, I’m left with two disappointments: First, that I never got to meet the great man personally, and second, that I wasn’t able to invite him to speak here at Beth Am especially when he was in Philadelphia to receive the coveted Liberty Medal which he shared with F.W. De Klerk in 1993. I do, however, have a signed copy of his acclaimed autobiography, “Long Walk To Freedom” and I treasure that. As you probably know, a movie by the same name has just been released.
August marked my 24th anniversary since having left the Cape of Good Hope for these distant shores of blessing. I do thank my lucky stars each and every day for the good fortune my family and I have enjoyed over the years and which I never take for granted. However, I’m also keenly aware of my privileged yet quixotic upbringing in deepest Africa: a member of a tiny though distinguished, vibrant, informed, energetic, robust Jewish community living in the once dark, sinister shadows of a brutal, pernicious, thoroughly corrupt, dictatorial regime. What an antithetical existence if ever there was one!
When I think back to those days, I lament, of course, the fact that there was little if anything we could do to change the course of history. As a rabbi of Temple Israel, I never knew if plain-clothes policemen or government informants were in the sanctuary. I was frequently told to guard my tongue and as a result one was left with the inevitable feeling that apartheid’s tentacles knew no racial, ethnic or cultural boundaries. We were all, somehow, thrown into a cauldron of unremitting fear, incrimination and apprehension, not knowing what lay around the corner.
To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know if such feelings are still felt by the rank-and-file of South African Jews who have decided to stake their future with their fellow countrymen and women. I can only begin to imagine the tumultuous changes that have taken place since my departure in 1989.
Our first-ever congregational tour to South Africa — now fully subscribed — is scheduled for the second and third weeks of November 2014. Our “groot trek”, our great journey, will begin in Cape Town, my birthplace. When the renowned English navigator, Sir Francis Drake, rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1580, he is purported to have written in his diary these immortal words: “It is a most stately thing and the fairest Cape in the whole circumference of the earth.”
I believe that to be true 433 years later. And I’d like to think that even prisoner #46664, from his cell on a tiny island just off that fairest Cape, would have concurred.
Rabbi Robert S. Leib is the religious leader of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington.