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?
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.