Durban Jewish Club: 26 October 2011
In July 1986, I told a journalist of the
Jewish Telegraphic Agency that "Israel is indeed a land of
miracles". He reciprocated by writing in the Washington Jewish
Week that I would become the first black president of South
Africa. So you can see that my friendship with Israel has always
been a two-way affair! But I did not of course see myself as the
first black President of South Africa.
In truth though, I have suffered criticism for
supporting Israel. South Africa's Government has made no effort
to conceal the fact that it supports the Palestinian cause, and
I am often both embarrassed and ashamed of the way Israel is
sidelined by our country's leaders; particularly when South
Africa has official diplomatic ties with Israel and recognizes
its sovereignty. Our Government maintains an unstated position
with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one seldom
hears an unbiased statement in Parliament.
Even religious leaders, like Archbishop
Desmond Tutu, have expressed partisan views when it comes to our
foreign policy. I, on the other hand, have been criticized for
being openly supportive of Israel.
Because I am a politician and a representative
of South Africans in our national Parliament, people often try
to sway my opinion over who is right and who is wrong. I receive
press alerts from the Palestinian Embassy on a regular basis and
have welcomed Ambassador Halimeh in my office in Cape Town. I
appreciate being kept abreast of news and international
politics, and I welcome invitations from the South African
Jewish Board of Deputies and visits from people like Ms Jenna
Reinbach, who organized this evening's events. I have also
attended a function in the Palestinian Embassy when the
Ambassador of Palestine invited me to enjoy some Arab Music at
the Pretoria Theatre by singers from Palestine. What I detest is
bias. My Professor at the University of Fort Hare who drafted
the Freedom Charter, Professor Zacchariah Keodireleng Matthews
said something which has stuck in my mind in all these decades.
He would always say: "There are two sides to every issue." No
one can dispute that there have been violations on both sides
which are inevitable in any conflict situation.
Just as an aside, Ms Reinbach gently requested
that I keep my remarks light-hearted. So it is not her fault
that I am delving into politics. But I feel I need to get this more serious
talk out of the way, before we speak about our friendship and
more pleasant issues. The Arab-Israeli conflict cannot be
ignored, even on a joyful occasion such as this.
As a political leader, I am kept informed, I
am chided for my perceived bias and I am lobbied to take a
stand. But what does one do with an issue as historically
intractable as this? As a Christian, I feel compelled to seek to
understand the issues and to find a black and white solution. I
know that Israel is close to the heart of the Maker. As a
Believer, I am obliged to involve myself.
But what I have realized over many years of
contemplating the Arab-Israeli conflict, is that it is not for
me to decide who is right and who is wrong. That is not my role.
I know that there is pain on both sides, violence on both sides,
tragedy on both sides. There is a story to be told from many
different perspectives. The narrative changes depending on the
voice of the narrator.
But suffering is never something we can turn a
blind eye to. We must support a peaceful outcome to this
historic conflict. It is not about taking sides, but about
ensuring that neither side sustains a loss of dignity or basic
humanity. It is about stemming the flow of blood and seeking a
different path forward that embraces compromise as well as the
importance of accommodating different views. It is about
I was recently asked by a group of political
science students what I would like to be remembered for. Over
the course of more than half a century in politics and public
life, I have waged many battles and taken up many causes. I have
won accolades and received awards. I have influenced history and
helped shape our nation. I have empowered the poorest of my
people, and challenged the most powerful to do what is right.
But when I consider what should be captured on
my epitaph, it is simply this: "He loved his country"
I have loved my country so much that I endured
vicious campaigns of vilification for the sake of pursuing its
liberation. I have endured assassination attempts and threats on
my life. I have sacrificed time with my family and the pursuit
of my own ambitions. I have given my strength, my energy and my
heart to seeing South Africans free. So the words of Ha-Tikvah
resonate with me. As long as deep within my heart my soul is
warm, my hope for South Africa is not yet lost. We, like Israel,
seek "to be a free people in our own land."
By virtue of our long struggle for freedom,
South Africa should relate to the heart's cry of Israel. I think
perhaps it is because we share the pathos of enduring oppression
and heartache that I have found a kinship with many Jewish
people, both in the South African diaspora as well as in Israel.
I have often recognized a certain generosity of spirit and
magnanimity in my Jewish friends, and I am drawn to their warmth. I am not implying that every Jew is a paragon of perfection. There is nothing like that in our entire human family, viz Species Homo Sapiens.
In 1952, I was privileged to begin my legal
articles under Mr Rowley Israel Arenstein, the lawyer often used
by the ANC at the time. He was charged with treason four years
later. Mr Arenstein wanted to see South Africa become a federal
system, a philosophy which I myself adopted and carried into the
constitutional negotiation process in 1992.
He was one of the first, but one of many
Jewish friends who influenced my life. I remain indebted to
several Jewish families who were steadfast friends during the
years of Apartheid; most notably perhaps the intellectual and
activist, Ms Helen Suzman. I will never forget how she and her
husband Mosie gave such wonderful hospitality to my wife and I
in their home whenever we travelled to Johannesburg, because in
those days hotels were reserved for whites only.
Ms Suzman was respected as a formidable force.
I recall that, in the sixties, I was arrested as I returned with
my brother-in-law, Dr Dotwana, from a seminar of the Progressive
Federal Party. I was driven to the office of the Security
Police. But someone contacted Ms Suzman and she immediately
demanded my release, which was granted; not because anyone
within the Apartheid regime would do her a favour, but because
they feared the international repercussions of her taking up my
Then of course, there is Mr Harry Oppenheimer,
who was a great friend and ally not only to me, but to the
people of KwaZulu, as well as the people of South Africa. Mr
Oppenheimer helped fund training institutes for teachers and
nurses, and established the Mangosuthu Technikon in Umlazi to
impart skills to people whose only help was to help themselves,
at my request.
As the Chief Minister of the erstwhile KwaZulu
Government, I was honoured to visit Israel at the invitation of
Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in August of 1985. The Israeli
media were enthusiastic about my visit. Indeed, the Jerusalem
Post credited me with preventing a revolutionary explosion in
South Africa. I met with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, former
Minister Abba Eban and Director-General David Kimche. I have
participated in a seminar in the United States with Premier
Netanyahu. When he became Prime Minister I sent him a message of
The Israeli Government provided agricultural
aid, leadership training and assistance to women-led
cooperatives in KwaZulu. We were deeply appreciative of the
partnership that developed between the KwaZulu Government and
the Government of Israel. I also appreciated the friendship that
grew between myself and Prime Minister Peres. Our friendship
endured through many years, and I was privileged to attend his
80th birthday celebration in 2003.
During an interview on that occasion, I said
that I have always warned against violence and promoted the
route of negotiations. My stance has not changed. I committed
myself to non-violence as a young activist in the ANC Youth
League, knowing that this was one of the fundamental principles
articulated by the founding fathers of our liberation struggle
in 1912. I remained committed to non-violence throughout the
armed struggle and the People's War that was waged by the ANC
and UDF against Inkatha. I entered a democratic South Africa on
the basis of non-violence, and I still champion negotiations,
reconciliation and peace.
I believe in this for my own country. How
could I believe anything different for Israel? Indeed, in 1985,
Prime Minister Peres told me, "We are brothers in suffering". He
understood the shared pathos that linked our people. He
understood that just as we suffered one another's suffering, we
should celebrate one another's victories.
I think that this, the Night to Honour Israel,
is in a sense a victory that we can celebrate together. We have
been drawn together by a love of Israel and we will celebrate
Israel through dance, music and joyful festivities. The fact
that we can express so much joy in the midst of so much ongoing
pain speaks of a victory of the human spirit.
I apologise for the fact that I will have to leave
immediately after I have made these remarks, as I have to fly to
Johannesburg tonight, where I am attending Mr Oliver Tambo's
birthday celebration at 7am tomorrow morning.
But more than that, it speaks of the victory
of our Creator who imbued the human spirit with a sense of hope.
We know that the smallest flame can light the darkness. So let
us take our small flame and ignite the radiance of celebration.
Tonight, let us honour Israel.