Nelson Mandela Was a Revolutionary—and These Jews Made Common Cause With Him
With a new biopic commemorating his long struggle against apartheid, remembering the children of European refugees who helped
In 1963, after South African police arrested six Jews and seven blacks in a raid on an African National Congress hideout in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia—a sweep that eventually landed Nelson Mandela in prison for more than 25 years—a white nationalist newspaper asked whether Jews were unhappy in South Africa. The community’s Board of Deputies responded unequivocally that the opposite was true, promising that South Africa’s Jews were loyal and patriotic. “No part of the community can or should be asked to accept responsibility” for the actions of a few, the board insisted in its official reply.
In time, of course, Mandela became a hero, and the actions of those few became a point of pride for South African Jews. Beginning with his years at Johannesburg’s more or less integrated University of the Witwatersrand—aka “Wits”—and later as an apprentice to a Jewish law firm, Nelson Mandela had a political life that was profoundly intertwined with those of Jewish activists who, to varying degrees, found in their Jewish identity the imperative to object to a system that, while almost completely welcoming to them, treated blacks in a way that many of these children of European refugees found discomfitingly familiar.
While most South Africa Jews took the silent, implicitly conservative position of the Board of Deputies, the great majority of white South Africans involved in “the struggle” were Jewish. Many were Communists. Most were lawyers. A few had money. But all faced what has been described as a “double marginality”: not fully accepted as white, while also alienated from an organized Jewish community beholden to the powers that be.
That so many Jews surrendered the comforts of their own relatively privileged lives—indeed, in at least one case, surrendered life itself—to join Mandela and the ANC, though they had little material stake relative to their black comrades, is in itself a testament to the radical legacy these Jews brought with them out of Europe to the other end of the globe. With a new film starring Idris Elba recounting Mandela’s long struggle, we look at those Jews who stood with him, and marched with him, every step of way.
Lazar Sidelsky, the South African-born son of refugees from Lithuania, grew up in the Transvaal highlands and paid his way through Wits by playing violin in a jazz band called Skoenie and his Connecticut Yankees. By the early 1940s, he was partner in one of Johannesburg’s biggest law firms, where he ran a program helping black South Africans get mortgages they were otherwise denied. One day in 1942, an ANC member named Walter Sisulu brought in Nelson Mandela, then 24, whom Sidelsky hired as an articled clerk, enabling Mandela to qualify as an attorney—a radical move for an established firm at the time. “It was a Jewish firm,” Mandela later wrote in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, “and in my experience I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.” Mandela worked at Sidelsky’s firm while earning a B.A. by mail order and later while studying law at Wits. In 1952, Sidelsky loaned Mandela seed money to start South Africa’s first black law practice, and when Mandela married his second wife Winnie in 1957, he brought the wedding procession past Sidelsky’s home as a sign of respect. At a kosher lunch in Mandela’s home a few years before Sidelsky’s death in 2002, at 90, the first black president of South Africa still referred to his former mentor as “Boss.”
Nat Bregman, a cousin of Lazar Sidelsky, became a clerk at Sidelsky’s firm the year before Mandela joined. The building had segregated elevators, but Bregman, a member of the Communist Party, rode with Mandela on the one reserved for blacks. In his memoir, Mandela describes Bregman—“Natie”—as his first white friend. Bregman schlepped his skeptical friend to Communist get-togethers in the early years of their friendship—gatherings populated almost entirely by blacks and Jews—but while Mandela was impressed by the “lively and gregarious group of people who did not seem to pay attention to color at all,” he later wrote that he was put off by the Party’s “antipathy to religion” and emphasis on class rather than race. As time went on, Bregman became religiously observant, moonlighting from his legal career as a comedian at weddings and bar mitzvahs and particularly renowned for his imitations of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Bregman died of kidney failure in 2011.
Arthur Goldreich was born in 1929 to a family proud to belong to the Anglo-Jewish elite. At the school he attended in the northern Transvaal province, a German-language instructor once passed out Hitler Youth magazines, prompting young Arthur to write to Prime Minister Jan Smuts asking permission to be taught Hebrew instead—a wish Smuts granted. Goldreich began studying architecture, but in May 1948—the same month the National Party won parliamentary elections, commencing the era of official apartheid in South Africa—he sailed to Israel on a small boat, packed with Holocaust survivors, to join the Palmach. In 1954, he returned to South Africa and joined the underground Communist Party. A notorious dandy, Goldreich wore tweeds and riding boots and hung around the polo club, but it was all a cover: Goldreich’s Gatsby-like persona allowed him to travel the world raising money for the ANC and provided the perfect cover for purchasing a farm outside Johannesburg from which the ANC’s militia wing, the Umkhonto we Sizwe—translated as “Spear of the Nation”—could plan and execute a campaign of violence against the state. Mandela moved to the farm, called Liliesleaf, in 1961, disguising himself as a gardener. After the 1963 raid on the farm, the government called Goldreich “the largest fish netted”—partly because of his role in drafting battle plans, based on his experience with the Palmach, but also because of the prevailing assumption that it was Jews like him who were encouraging blacks to rebel. Goldreich avoided trial alongside Mandela by bribing a guard with 4,000 rand—the kid wanted a new Studebaker—and fleeing to Tanzania. Goldreich eventually settled in Herzliya, Israel, and he founded the architecture department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He later became deeply critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, describing the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as “bantustanism” in an interview with the Guardian. Goldreich died in Tel Aviv in 2011.
Harold Wolpe became politicized after participating in a Socialist-Zionist youth project of teaching at a local night school for blacks, where he witnessed firsthand the dehumanizing effects of a racist society. He befriended Mandela and other activists while studying law at Wits and became one of Mandela’s primary lawyers beginning with the seminal 1955 political summit, the Congress of the People—filing a lawsuit to bar the police from the premises—to Mandela’s final arrest about a year before the raid on the Liliesleaf farm, when Wolpe himself was detained before escaping with Goldreich. Wolpe settled in England and became a sociologist, writing a highly influential 1972 paper, “Capitalism and Cheap Labour-Power in South Africa,” which melded the political and economic criticisms of the regime by demonstrating how apartheid effectively suppressed the development of an urban proletariat and therefore differed in kind, not only in degree, from ordinary racial segregation. Dan O’Meara, a South African activist and historian now based at the Université du Québec à Montréal, has written that Wolpe’s work “quite literally reshaped the way in which vast numbers of people saw apartheid South Africa, and in doing so, made a huge contribution to doing away with it.” Wolpe moved back to South Africa in 1991 and directed education policy at the University of the Western Cape until he died at the age of 70 in 1996.
Yossel Mashel Slovo, known as Joe, joined the Communist Party in 1942 and then lied about his age to join the South African army, with which he fought in Italy. After the war, Slovo became active in the radical Springbok Legion veterans’ association and studied law at Wits, where he met Mandela. Just before graduating, he married Ruth First, the daughter of a Communist Party leader. “We took off half an hour from our respective offices to get married,” he later wrote in an unfinished autobiography, according to the recent book Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid. Their home served as a center for radical organizing, discussion, and parties. When the police conducted one of their regular searches of the house in the 1950s, they confiscated a copy of Stendhal’s The Red and the Black solely because of the title. Indeed, Joe was the primary link between the Communist Party and ANC in the late 1950s and was Mandela’s partner in organizing the Umkhonto we Sizwe militia. Both Slovo and First were arrested and prosecuted in the Treason Trial of 1956, which was partially conducted in a converted Pretoria synagogue—the only record of either First or Slovo having ever entered one. Abroad at the time of the Liliesleaf raid in 1963, Slovo was eventually joined in London by First and their children. Though in his early years he was an ardent Stalinist—much more so than First—by the late 1980s Slovo had become more critical of “socialism without democracy.” Returning to the country in 1990 after Mandela was released and the prohibition on the Communist Party was lifted, Slovo crafted the power-sharing agreement credited with making the transition to majority rule after the end of apartheid in 1994 relatively smooth. Mandela, Slovo’s last visitor the night before he died in 1995, delivered an emotional eulogy at the memorial service. At the gathering, Khoisan X, a black activist a generation younger than Mandela, recalled hearing his son’s friend once ask, after seeing a photo of him and Slovo together, “Why is your father shaking hands with a white man?” The son answered: “That’s no white man. That’s Joe Slovo.”
Ruth First was born in 1925 to Latvian immigrants who had helped found South Africa’s Communist Party. The first in her family to attend college, First—described by her best friend as “sharp-tongued and shy”—founded the Progressive Students’ League at Wits, where she also befriended Mandela, whom she later described as “good-looking, very proud, very dignified, very prickly, rather sensitive, perhaps even arrogant.” Often compared to Rosa Luxembourg for her devotion to the struggle, First edited and wrote for various radical newspapers throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and was active in revolutionary politics. In 1963, First was arrested at the Wits library and endured a four-month detention, which she wrote about in a memoir, 117 Days. First’s Xhosa comrades called her yimazi ephah neenkati—a mare that keeps up with the stallions. While exiled in London, First became a United Nations observer to Africa and edited Mandela’s writings and speeches into a book, No Easy Walk to Freedom. In 1977, she moved with Slovo to Maputo, Mozambique, where she lectured and remained active in the anti-apartheid movement. First was in her office at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo on August 17, 1982, when she opened a package addressed to her—sent, it turned out, by the South African security agents. It exploded in her face. She was 57.
James Kantor was one of Johannesburg’s most famous lawyers in the 1950s. He wore English suits, drove American cars, and lived in a big house with a pool and a Portuguese chef. Described by First as a “socialite yachtsman,” Kantor dated models—until he married one, Barbara. But his sister was married to Harold Wolpe. Though Kantor claimed in his memoir not to know Wolpe was engaged in illegal activities—specifically, laundering money to help Goldreich purchase the Lilesleaf farm—he hired Wolpe at James Kantor & Partners, enough to make him accessory to the conspiracy, as far as the state was concerned. After the Rivonia raid, with Wolpe in jail, Kantor served as Mandela’s lawyer until he, too, was arrested—just after Goldreich and Wolpe’s escape. It was assumed by many in the movement that Kantor, who up until that point had not been a member of the resistance movement, was being held hostage until the escapees returned. In jail, he shared a cell with Mandela, who agreed to be godfather to Kantor’s child. On the morning the judge in the trial, Quartus De Wet, was to issue a ruling on the motion for Kantor’s release, Mandela found Kantor pacing up and down their shared cell. Mandela suggested they exchange ties for good luck. When De Wet dropped the charges against him, Kantor raised his borrowed tie toward Mandela “as a kind of salute and farewell,” Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom. After his release, Kantor renounced the legal profession and moved to London, where he died of a heart attack in 1974, just 47 years old.
Helen Suzman, née Gavronsky, was for many years the only member of the South African Parliament opposed to apartheid. She was frequently the target of sexist and anti-Semitic attacks— “Go back to Israel!” she was told, though she was born in the South African mining town of Germiston—as well as subject to eavesdropping by the security forces, which she foiled by loudly blowing a whistle into the mouthpiece of her phone. Once, when a parliamentary colleague said her line of questioning was embarrassing the country, Suzman shot back, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.” Exercising her parliamentary privileges, she paid eight visits to Mandela in prison, bringing international attention and legitimacy to his cause. Suzman was distant from the Jewish establishment and critical of its silence on apartheid, according to the historian Gideon Shimoni, and when the Board of Deputies presented Suzman with its annual humanitarian award in 2007, she said flatly, “It’s about time.” Though twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she was heavily criticized for her opposition to sanctions and divestment—“I don’t see how wrecking the economy of the country will insure a more stable and just society,” she said—and pursued by accusations of prolonging apartheid by participating in a blatantly unjust political system, which made her enemies inside and outside South Africa. Suzman died on New Year’s Day 2009.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the University of the Witwatersrand is commonly referred to as “Wits,” rather than as “the Wits.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Last week’s protest at a Buenos Aires Kristallnacht commemoration was a display of denial—and ignorance