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Op-Ed: The Legacy of Nelson Mandela

by Rabbi Uriel Vigler

It was the last night of Chanukah, December 26, 1992. We had just lit the last Chanukah candle and my father was driving me to the airport. As we drove he told me, “Always remember that on the 8th night of Chanukah you left South Africa to begin a new life in Israel.”

That was the night I emigrated from South Africa.

I was to be the first member of our family to emigrate. The plan was for the rest of the family to follow me shortly. Just four weeks earlier my mother had been brutally attacked at our home on a Shabbat morning. My parents decided enough was enough, and we were all leaving the country.

For my parents, this was a déjà vu. You see, I was born in Bulawayo, Rhodesia, in 1978. At that time Ian Smith was President of Rhodesia and white rule in that country, which borders South Africa, was about to be dissolved. In fact, a year later Rhodesia had a new president, a black man named Abel Muzorewa, and the country’s name was changed to Zimbabwe. Shortly thereafter, in 1980, Robert Mugabe rose to power and his infamous reign lasts until this day.

My father, the rabbi of Bulawayo, fled Rhodesia at the end of 1978 along with most of the country’s Jews, due to the unrest and instability. Sadly, Zimbabwe never recovered and the “Breadbasket of Africa” gradually crumbled. (Interestingly, I am the only Rhodesian-born Chabad rabbi in the world today!)

At this time, my father was offered the opportunity to serve the Jewish community in either New Zealand or South Africa. He asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, of righteous memory, and the Rebbe told him to go to South Africa. So, my siblings and I grew up in South Africa, a country that had tragically adopted a policy of racial discrimination towards its black citizens, but was a haven of safety and security for its Jewish ones.

I vividly recall the apartheid state of the 1980’s. I remember the public busses marked, “Whites Only.” I remember the signs in the park stating, “Whites Only”. I even recall the large markings outside public restrooms that declared, “Whites Only.”

Then, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. South Africa was embarking on a new road under the inspired leadership of F.W. De Klerk. The local papers described the anxiety everyone was feeling – whites and blacks alike. The question on everyone’s lips, “What will be?”

We were expecting bombings, civil war, a blood bath! The local papers were predicting it. The Afrikaans party would never allow the blacks to take over so smoothly, we worried. Would South Africa now become like Rhodesia across the border?

Déjà vu.

And so, I left south Africa on December 26, 1992.

But then Nelson Mandela rose to power as the country’s first democratically elected leader.

Throughout this period of worry and concern, there was one strong voice that consistently reassured South African Jewry that there was nothing to fear, all would be well. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was adamant. He told many individuals, including my father, that South Africa would be a good place for the Jewish community until the coming of Moshiach.

And indeed, Nelson Mandela proved to be the conduit for the Rebbe’s blessing. Mandela miraculously maneuvered South Africa through an impossible transition, and despite all the prophets of doom, the “Rainbow Nation” was born in a spirit of peace and reconciliation. The anticipated bloodshed and destruction did not happen – just as the Rebbe predicted.

I think we South African’s truly understood that we had experienced a modern-day miracle when, during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final that South Africa contested, 100,000 people chanted in unison “Nelson, Nelson!” as he appeared on the field to present the trophy to the South African captain. The Springboks were dear to the hearts of South Africa’s white Afrikaners and loathed by the nation’s black majority. By donning their emblem and putting on the Springboks uniform, Mandela reconciled a fractured nation, badly damaged by racism and hatred. I remember that day well.

Mandela suffered horribly at the hands of the apartheid regime. He was not allowed to attend his own mother’s funeral. He was denied access to the funeral of his son who died in a car crash. Nevertheless, to his immense credit, he never took revenge. He embraced all South Africans, regardless of race or affiliation, in a spirit of peace, understanding, and forgiveness. This is but one lesson we can take from this giant of a man.

I moved back to South Africa just three months after I emigrated. With time, my mother came to peace with her traumatic attack and my parents decided to continue living there.

I love South Africa. My parents still live there till today, as do some of my siblings. Many people would consider my parents crazy to continue living there after such an ordeal. But the Rebbe gave the Jews of South Africa a most unique blessing—that it will be a good place for Jewish until Moshiach arrives, and Mandela was the catalyst who brought that blessing to fruition.  Madiba was the catalyst!

Thank you, Nelson Mandela.

Rest in peace.


  • 1. very nicely put! wrote:

    I also grew up in south Africa at this time. it was truly heartbreaking to see the sign s all over the city, “whites only”. it reminded me of the holocaust, ” no Jews allowed”. I couldn’t understand how this could happen in a country that I was growing up in. when my maid could not come into the library with us, broke my heart every time. so on the day of elections, everyone held their breath, not knowing if a civil war would break out at any moment. but it never did. and this is thanks to Mandela, bc of him the transition from white regime to black was a peaceful day. so for all the American out there who are asking , why Mandela was such a big deal, you could not fully grasp how much of a big deal he was, unless you lived there and experience it.

  • 2. Milhouse wrote:

    It was hardly peaceful to all the people who were killed, maimed, raped, and robbed. Or to all the people who used to be able to go around safely, and now have to cower behind their gates, and fear carjackers every time they go out. Nor to all the farmers who are to this day being murdered, raped, and robbed with the government’s connivance.

    Mandela was a communist and a terrorist. That he wasn’t as bad as he could have been is small praise.

    • 3. re-read the article wrote:

      I believe the author mentions a violent episode that happened to his own mother… So, yeah…

    • 4. Milhouse wrote:

      I read it just fine the first time. How blind can one be to be a victim and still marvel at how “peaceful” it is!

    • 5. re-read the article wrote:

      Look, people are on the receiving end of violence everywhere and always. Bad stuff happens. At the minimum concede that It’s possible – just possible – that they see something you don’t.

      With regards to Mandela, I’ll grant you he was no saint but his story is nonetheless compelling. Compelling precisely because he was flawed.
      History is rife with persecuted opposition leaders who went on to wreak unimaginable cruelty upon their persecutors as soon as they got power. He did not. That he had it in him to show that kind of grace in the face of suffering says something about the man.

    • 6. Milhouse wrote:

      Bad stuff happens, but it rarely happened in SA before Mandela. And now it happens not only much more than before him, but much more than almost anywhere else. Objectively SA is a much more dangerous place, and many people have been murdered, maimed, raped, and/or robbed, that would not have been had the Nats kept power.

    • 7. YMSP wrote:

      True – He tried to blow up a train of whites. He did, in the end, reach out to make peace, but it benefited him. He also gave up violence way beforehand, but that too was to his benefit. There’s a reason for the mitzvah of lo sechanem, which we should take to heart.

    • 8. Milhouse wrote:

      He also gave up violence way beforehand,

      No, he didn’t. That’s why he was in prison for so long. He could have left his “cell” (or rather luxury suite) at any time from 1985, simply by saying the words “I renounce the use of violence”. He refused.

  • 9. lets be real! wrote:

    most people live with a dream – what Mandela could have been. There was no blood bath on the day ,maybe ,but look whats happening now! Black people still are poor, and people are being murdered everyday for no reason! Mandela was a friend of Arafat! I believe he was a political fake! He and his family have accumulated lots of money and the rest of HIS people are still poor, and the country will end up like Uganda and Zimbabwe eventually! what a pity! H could have done so much more good!

  • 10. no one special wrote:

    “and people are being murdered everyday for no reason! ”

    I wonder. What would be a reason for murdering someone?

  • 11. Out of Africa wrote:

    In dealing with complex and sensitive issues the Rebbe often answers to consult with the experts from that place. The same applies here. Viewing South Africa during Apartheid, the transition and its present difficulties through the lens of the media and sometimes vague memories of impressions from twenty years ago is at best superficial and likely distorted. Speak to the people on the ground and you will get a dramatically different picture.

    Rabbi Vigler does a excellent job of capturing the intense anxiety and subsequent relief of a relatively smooth transition.

    The reality is that the Jewish community ba”h is experiencing a golden age of return to Yiddishkeit that is perhaps unique in the world. The levels of Shemiras Shabbos, Kashrus and Torah learning in a community which is almost 100% a Baal Teshuvah community are unmatched.

    Violent crime in the heavily Jewish areas is being addressed and is 10% of what it was ten years ago. Is it at acceptable levels? No. Nor are NY’s crime levels. Here at least we don’t have to worry about “Knockout”. The black areas still suffer from rampant crime and will continue to do so until the government shows the political will to confront it head-on and simultaneously upgrades the appaling education system.

    On the topic of Mandela – he had his flaws, as do all political leaders. But he was a great reconcilor that almost single-handedly set the tone. When he had power he was certainly no communist (an accusation that is repeatedly made in the comments section of Jewish media over and over. I forgot – they were not here and forgot or never knew what was actually happening twenty years ago). Arab lover? Perhaps. But Israel made crucial and almost inexplicable strategic blunders in dealing with Mandela’s political party that no other country in the world made. He also visited Israel and was even-handed in dealing with the parties. Are we unhappy that he was not a staunch ally of Israel? Israel has few staunch allies and expecting him to be different in the light of the recent past history of those times is unrealistic. (Israel had been involved with the Apartheid regime, while the Arabs had been supportive of Mandela’s party). Even-handedness was the maximum that one could hope for. No-one can accuse him of racism, anti-Semitism or running a dictatorship.

    So please stop bashing a country and by extension its Jewish community – that had the Rebb’s unique blessing that we see being fulfilled on may levels. It would seem that undermining the local Jewish community is certainly not what the Rebbe intended with those Brochos.

  • 13. Awesome Article wrote:

    Thank you Rabbi Vigler for a fantastic op-ed piece.

    Nelson Mandela does in fact leave this world a better place than he found it.

    Yes he was a friend to Yasir Arafat, but we must remember the context in that Arafat befriended Mandela when the entire world, including Israel, supported the racist South African regime.

    Yes Mandela made statements that were insensitive and unfair to Israel, but we must remember history accurately. Long after the entire world agreed and accepted that the apartheid regime was wrong, Israel remained the only civilized country supporting the racist South African government. So his bitterness makes him neither antisemitic nor even anti Israel.

    As Rabbi Vigler has so eloquently done, every South African Jew that I know sings the praises of Nelson Mandela. He went out of his way to reach out to the Jewish community, and he protected them, when the politically expedient move would have been to not do so. Nelson Mandela even reached out to those in the Jewish community who participated in the oppression.

    Thank you Nelson Mandela for your part in improving our world, and thank you Rabbi Vigler for recognizing Mandela’s contribution.

  • 14. Yakov Khanin wrote:

    I don’t understand what the Rebbe meant saying it will be peaceful. Is it to compare to Russia of 1917 and after? Probably South Africa now is much better. But from what I hear about it, “everything is hefker there” as one shaliach from there said.
    Especially Johannesburg.

  • 15. Violence "justified?" wrote:

    According to some historians about Mandela, they say that at first, he used non-violent means to try to get the message out that how they are being treated is not fair. What did the government do in response to what seemed to be peaceful, non-violent protests (compare to the sit-ins, Rosa Parks, etc. in the US)? After refusing demands that they disperse, they opened fire, killing many, including women and children.
    It was after this that Mandela and his buddies decided that the only way to get their way was through terrorism. If the government can do it, so can they.

  • 16. Hakaros HaTov? wrote:

    In response to Mandela’s getting chummy with Arafat, Communists and other undesirables, critics say that it wasn’t that he was anti-semitic. Whoever helped him, which included the Soviet Union, Cuba, etc., he felt an obligation to kind of show “thanks.” It is my understanding that he did show gratitude to the Jews who helped him.
    Unfortunately, there is a very negative fallout from this, which is the crime rate. But crime affects everyone, and cannot be equated with anti-Semitism. So, what should we do, go back to apartheid or find some other way?


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