Bluntly articulate, with a deep throaty laugh and a keen sense of irony, Benjamin Pogrund sits in an armchair in his apartment in a leafy Jerusalem neighborhood, remembering his friend, Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5 at 95.
Born in South Africa, Pogrund, now 80, began as a cub reporter for the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg in 1958, covering black politics and the cruelties of apartheid. For his brutally honest reporting, he was repeatedly threatened, arrested, beaten and tried by the authorities. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pogrund and Mandela meet frequently on dark Johannesburg streets and exchanged information in clandestine message drops or secretive pre-arranged phone calls. Arrested in 1962, Mendela was sentenced to life in prison. Had Pogrund been found out, he would have faced a similar fate.
After Mandela was arrested, Pogrund was the first non-family member and non-politician to visit him in prison on Robben Island. “I visited him as a friend, not as a journalist,” he recalled.
In 1997, Pogrund immigrated to Jerusalem, where he has been a prolific commentator and active in Israeli-Palestinian dialogues and peace initiatives. In his latest book, Is Israel Apartheid? Reporting the Facts about Israel and South Africa, which will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2014, he debunks worldwide attempts to brand Israel as an apartheid state.
But while Mandela was suffering in his dank cell, Israel was actively supporting the apartheid regime. “So what?” he says. “So were all the other countries. And this idea that some have written in Israeli papers that Israeli leaders are being hypocritical—that’s rubbish. Leaders say what they have to say. Israel wasn’t the only country supporting apartheid and wasn’t even the worst offender.”
But Pogrund is no knee-jerk apologist for everything Israeli. From his vantage point in Jerusalem, Pogrund thinks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision not to attend Mandela’s funeral is “childish and stupid” and that the official reason—the cost of the trip—is “absurd,” especially given Netanyahu’s recently revealed penchant for exorbitantly-priced luxuries at the public’s expense.
“Maybe he thinks that there would be protests against him and that, as Israeli prime minister, he would be embarrassed. But I don’t think that would happen; that’s not the mood in South Africa at this time of mourning.”
Some Jewish leaders have characterized Mandela as anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic, especially in light of his support for the Palestinian cause. Characteristically, Pogrund replies bluntly, “What utter crude and stupid nonsense. In later years, Mandela was not well-informed and not properly briefed, and he made some poor statements on the Middle East,” Pogrund acknowledges. “But he never forgot that many of his true friends, and staunchest supporters, and many of his lawyers were Jews. And he admired Israel as he should have, because there is much to admire here. He didn’t like what we do. he was against the occupation; so what, so am I! So are many loyal Israelis.”
Indeed, in later years, Pogrund tried to convince Mandela to visit the region. “I told him, ‘We need you. Your moral stature can help us transform our situation.’ But he told me that he was investing his energies in trying to solve the problems in Rwanda at the time, and then the time never came. We are very provincial and think we are the center of the universe, but there really are greater problems in the world.”
Despite his profound admiration, Pogrund’s assessment of Mandela’s legacy is sober. “Mandela was a truly generous human being and it is thanks to his overtures—and the whites that accepted them—that South Africa didn’t blow up. But South Africa isn’t fixed yet. He left us with a warm, good feeling of unity and love and togetherness. But in practical terms that doesn’t amount to a great deal. That goodness has been far-overtaken by the inherent problems. The wounds of apartheid are so deep, you can’t get rid of them in 20 years. “Feeling good is palliative, but it isn’t enough. It won’t be enough for us here, either.”
The overwhelming lesson to be learned from Mandela’s life, concludes Pogrund, is the importance of trust. “Mandela always believed in maintaining a dialogue with the other side so that trust can be created. We see the lack of trust in the so-called peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and that is why they are failing. Even after 27 years in prison, when he was released, Mandela offered dialogue, not violence. And the whites reciprocated. There were wise, brave, trusting leaders on both sides. This is what we should learn.”
Eetta Prince-Gibson, former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report, is based in Jerusalem