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The day I sat next to Nelson Mandela at a Jewish wedding

Nelson Mandela: Speech was acclaimed Photo: SA Good News; Courtesy flickr.com

Over several decades the world has witnessed political leaders from around the world becoming tyrants and dictators - leaders who have denied their citizens their freedom, turning them into refugees and condemning them to starvation and disease. They have stripped them of their human dignity and any level of democracy. Many of these leaders have been the cause of civil war, violence and destruction.

Certainly, the youth of these countries have no icons to look up to as leaders.

An exception to this state of affairs was brought to the fore when the beloved Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5, 2013.

The entire world was saddened by his passing. Although he had been ailing during his last years, his death seemed to shock the world, as witnessed by his memorial service which was attended by almost 100 international guests, including heads of state and celebrities, together with 90,000 people in the FNB stadium near Soweto, and millions who watched on the TV screen.

Eulogies were read by the Secretary General of the United Nations, the President of the USA and others, all of who claimed that Nelson Mandela would be recognized as one of the world's greatest icons.

The ten days of national mourning culminated with a state funeral in his home town of Qunu in the Eastern Cape in South Africa on December 15, 2013.

I was privileged to be in the company of Nelson Mandela on a few occasions, and on occasion met him personally and shook his hand.

Mandela, or Madiba as he was affectionately called, was a very tall man - smiling, serene and friendly. His aura filled any room with brightness.

The first time I met Madiba was when he accepted the invitation to be the keynote speaker at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies conference in Johannesburg in August 1993. The leadership of the board was assembled for cocktails, awaiting the arrival of the guest of honor.

He came into the room with his entourage, insisting on meeting and shaking the hands of ALL present, saying hello and smiling sincerely. He was ushered into the conference hall wherethe large audience stood and applauded his arrival. He, together with the other VIPs, took their position on the stage. Several speakers preceded Madiba.

When the chairman introduced him and called him to the podium, the delegates once again stood to welcome him, and as he proceeded to the center stage they welcomed him yet again. He knew many of the people present, including the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris whom he affectionately called "my Rabbi".

In his speech Mandela said: "I want to state in the most unequivocal terms that the (ANC) African National Congress has stood firm against anti-Semitism, as it has stood firmly against other forms of racism. It is our belief that all citizens should be protected against all forms of racism including anti-Semitism". His speech was acclaimed enthusiastically by all present and was widely reported in the print media.

Just as an aside, when Mandela was to marry Graca Machelle, the wedding was to take place on a Saturday. Mandela asked "his Rabbi" to bless the union. The Chief Rabbi agreed to bless him on the preceding Friday afternoon.

My next meeting with Mandela was when my wife and I attended the wedding of the daughter of our dearest friend. This friend is the pediatrician to the Mandela family. The chupah took place in the garden of our shul. We were seated in the front row of chairs near the chupah. Mandela arrived with his entourage as an invited guest and sat next to me, politely introducing himself to me and to my wife, and shaking our hands warmly. He was dressed elegantly in his typical colorful "Madiba" shirt and was wearing a kippah.

As the chupah proceeded, he asked me to explain the rituals and customs. He was very interested and enjoyed the liturgy and the sermon. After the ceremony, due to his busy schedule, he had to leave, but not without moving towards the crowd to congratulate the family, much to the concern of his security guards.

A vast number of Jewish people played an important role in the life of Nelson Mandela. All this is admirably documented in a beautiful book called Jewish Memories of Mandela by the South African Board of Deputies, depicting the relationship between Mandela and the Jewish Community of South Africa. On the cover of the book is a quotation from Chief Rabbi Harris.

His warm relationship with the community was not always comfortable. His close ties with the PLO were a point of consternation. The enormous financial support for the ANC from Libya's Gaddafi and the photo shoots of Mandela embracing Arafat and Gaddafi were equally disconcerting.

On the other hand, his relationship with the community was unique. His legal team throughout his trial was mostly Jewish, and so was his medical team including his ophthalmologist, pulmonologist and audiologist.

The launch of his autobiography, Long walk to Freedom, took place at the prominent book store in a mall at Hyde Park, Johannesburg. A vast number of invited guests were present. Once again, Madiba knew many of the Jewish guests, greeted them warmly and again he took an unscheduled walk-about, greeting the guests and shaking their hands. This custom always took his security personnel by surprise and concern.

On any occasion he would interact with children - bending down to greet them and shake their hands. This story was told to me by one of his guards: Mandela was welcoming a celebrity, a guest from Africa, at the Union Building steps. Looking across at the audience he noticed a child on the shoulders of his father. He summoned his guard to bring the child forward. Mandela ruffled the child's hair and introduced himself. He asked the child his name, made other small talk and then introduced the child to his celebrity as his friend. The child shook the hand of the celebrity, greeted him and marched back to his dad.*

Just for a little smile, I remember in 1967 my wife and I were in London and we passed South Africa House. There was a huge mob standing outside with flags and placards, and youngsters wearing white T-shirts on which was printed a photograph of Mandela's face. Above his head was written "Release" and underneath his picture was printed "Mandela". When I approached one young man and asked what was going on and what Mandela's first name was, he pointed at his T-shirt, and said, "Release, of course."

I attended the rugby World Cup final at the Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg. Mandela gave great support to the Springbok team encouraging all South Africans to follow the event. Rugby was always loved by South Africans, but it was perceived as a white man's sport. On this day, thanks to "Madiba magic", the entire country came to support the Springboks. Mandela came onto the field prior to the kick-off, wearing the green and gold jersey of the Springboks with No. 6 emblazoned on the back, normally worn by the captain of the team. He shook the hands of the players of both teams, wishing them luck. This added to the excitement of the event. The crowd roared with delight at his charm and coolness. This was one of the turning points in South African history, in which a multi-racial crowd stood together wishing the local team success. South Africa won, the final points being scored by a Jewish player, Joel Stransky. After the game, Mandela was back on the field, triumphantly wearing the team jersey whilst presenting the trophy.

I quote from Nelson Mandela:

"Sport has the power to change the world,

It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does

It speaks to the youth, a language they understand."

Nelson Mandela has shown the way towards reconciliation, how to embrace one's fellows, and how to reach out towards a better future.

He has taught us humility, and what it means to be a true human being.

 

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