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I’ll Miss You, Madiba: One Jewish South African on the Moment Mandela Walked Free

The country and the world came to a standstill then. Can his death inspire a similar momentum for change?

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A picture taken on Feb. 11, 1990, shows Nelson Mandela and his then-wife Winnie raising their fists and saluting cheering crowd upon Mandela’s release from the Victor Verster Prison near Paarl. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)
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I was a 15-year-old white Jewish schoolboy in the middle of Nowheresville, South Africa, when Nelson Mandela took his long walk to freedom on Feb. 11, 1990. He’d spent 27 years in prison, but I didn’t really know much about what he did to get himself into jail for that long. He certainly wasn’t as famous in my small town as, say, Naas Botha, rugby captain of South Africa’s Springboks. Yet, from his isolated cell on Robben Island, Mandela had come to represent tens of millions of people in South Africa about whom I knew equally little. He was one of the most famous people in the world, and certainly the most powerful man in South Africa. As Mandela left Victor Verster Prison, an event broadcast live around the world, everyone around me watched the TV, waiting to hear what his first words would be. The country, the world, and my little town came to a standstill.

It was probably the first time in the history of South Africa that blacks and whites all stopped what they were doing and did the same thing together: stare at their TV sets, listen to their radios. Perhaps this was the actual historic moment, the silent break in history when masters and slaves alike dropped their tools and lifted their heads to a flickering screen, watching their longstanding power relationship be upended. As I watched Mandela on TV, I wondered if it meant that black kids were going to be allowed into our whites-only school. I wondered what they would be like. Would they play rugby with us, or would they want to play soccer? Could they run faster than us? A more mature version of me would ask if this was, finally, the beginning of South Africa’s redemption.

There was a feeling of change in the air. But not everyone was excited. For some, it was history in the unmaking. A door had been opened into the unknown, and for some, especially in my hometown, it felt like the end of their future, and the sky was about to fall, like the sudden and violent Highveld storms that could break out through a sunny day. The barbarians—I won’t use the K-word tossed around so lightly back then—would be at our gates soon, I heard Afrikaner neighbors in my hometown say.

My hometown. I grew up in Krugersdorp, about an hour west of Johannesburg in what is called the West Rand. For years it was a rough-and-tumble Afrikaner town built on top of deep-level gold, iron, asbestos, and platinum mines. The black townships were on the outskirts, and whites never went anywhere near them. Most of the men in Krugersdorp were either mine bosses, electricians, engineers, plumbers, welders, builders, car mechanics and panel beaters, or they owned hardware stores. Quite a few were ex-military Parabats—members of the 44th Parachute Brigade Special Forces unit, which operated in Angola and South West Africa, now known as Namibia.

It was a hard town: anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-gay, anti-Greek, anti-Portuguese, anti-anyone who wasn’t a “genuine” Afrikaner. They liked to throw that word around a lot: “Genuine.” They liked Israel—“You guys know how to fight, genuine”—but they hated Jews. It was a town of hard, unhappy men, whose sons played hard, bone-crunching rugby. Krugersdorp folk were into bitterness, boerewors, and brandy—a triple shot of each. Guys would go driving around at night, cruising for a bruising, and God help you if you were at the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was a strange town for a young Jewboy born to Russian parents in Tel Aviv to end up in. My parents left the Soviet Union for Israel in 1969. After 11 years in the Promised Land, my father decided he’d had enough of promises and packed us all up to the next Promised Land—Apartheid South Africa. Perhaps the irony of leaving Jewish persecution in Soviet Russia only to opt for white persecution in South Africa was lost on my father. I don’t know; we never spoke about it. But that’s where I ended up.

Krugersdorp was named after Paul Kruger, the Afrikaner nationalist who led his “Volk” to freedom from the British and established the Transvaal. He was the leader of the Boer resistance against the British in the First Boer War and was president of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900. Krugersdorp was where Afrikaner commandos gathered to make a blood oath to fight to the bitter end against the British “Rooineks”—rednecks, which was what the Afrikaners called the British, ironically, because anyone else in the world would have called the Afrikaners rednecks, in the American sense of the word. I felt Paul Kruger’s spirit on my bones and knuckles mostly at school; and around town his stern statue stared down at me.

Kruger carved an Afrikaner nation out of the British Empire—a nation that wanted to live separately from the indigenous blacks from whom they took their land. “Separate but equal,” was how they called it, while the rest of the world called it by another name: apartheid. The same Afrikaners then took their freedom and wasted it on establishing a country whose foundations were plunged deep in the thick bile of white superiority—and drenched in rivers of black-red blood. It was a police state where black men would disappear never to be seen or heard from again; or they would “commit suicide” in prison. A country where it was illegal for whites to marry blacks; where a grown black man would call a small white child “master”; and where men like Nelson Mandela were left with no choice but to take up armed struggle against their oppressors. Paul Kruger wanted his people to be free of the British, but he imprisoned the blacks. In time, South Africa became the world’s most reviled pariah state, and Kruger’s people were portrayed in movies like Lethal Weapon just as they were: racist bad guys.

Mandela existed on the complete opposite end of the spectrum of history and myth. He led South Africa’s blacks to freedom from the Afrikaners whom Kruger had liberated from the British. Nelson Mandela wanted South Africa to be free of racism—a Rainbow Nation for all the world to behold and emulate. He knew that for this miracle to work, he could not imprison the whites that had imprisoned the blacks, and him among them. But in Krugersdorp, there were many who didn’t believe Mandela’s message of reconciliation then; and there are still many—whites, blacks, and “coloreds,” as mixed-race South Africans are still known—who have now lost faith in the hope that he offered. South Africa may not have racist legislation anymore, but that doesn’t mean there’s no racism in South Africa today. There is. In all directions.

***

When Mandela walked free, in Krugersdorp and other places like it, there were many “bitter-enders”—those who vowed to fight to the end to keep Afrikaner national aspirations alive. They were spiritually, and physically, prepared for war—a racial bloodbath, Armageddon, a wave of mutilation that was to wash over every white man’s house as revenge for centuries of oppression. A new Battle of Blood River. In those days, like today, South Africa was awash with guns. Everyone had a gun, and even very young boys knew how to point and shoot a .22 rifle with expert skill. There was extreme trepidation and anxiety in my hometown—nobody knew what to expect, and many expected the worst. I think some even welcomed it. These people knew this day would always come, when there would be a final reckoning. Folks were stocking up on guns and ammo. Praise God and pass the ammunition.

They were ultra-nationalists like Clive Derby-Lewis, the man who orchestrated the assassination of South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani in 1993. Derby-Lewis, who through the Hani hit tried to incite a race war and turn back the clock of history, lived down the road from me. The day Hani was shot, the police and army came out en masse and surrounded all the white schools in Krugersdorp, to make sure there were no reprisals. There was terror in the air, but no terror on the ground. The white kids were spared. That was three years after Mandela walked free.

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I’ll Miss You, Madiba: One Jewish South African on the Moment Mandela Walked Free

The country and the world came to a standstill then. Can his death inspire a similar momentum for change?