South Africa: A Special Evening With the South African Jewish Community

press release





Glenhazel Shul, Yeshiva College Campus: 8 October 2018

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth Nations; Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Dr Warren Goldstein; National President of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Ms Mary Kluk; Chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation and the South African Friends of Israel, Mr Ben Swartz; and friends from the Jewish community in our beloved country.

I cannot express the depth of my appreciation for your kindness, for celebrating my 90th birthday and honouring our friendship. I am proud to see how many friends I have in the Jewish community.

My only sadness this evening is in knowing that our celebration will be met with animosity in some quarters. But whatever criticism you face for celebrating my legacy, and whatever criticism I face for my friendship with the Jewish community, we are both following the prescripts of our conscience. To me, that is the measure of integrity.

Let me say from the start that I disagree with the decision taken by the ANC to downgrade South Africa's Embassy in Israel. It is short-sighted and regressive. Moreover it stands in opposition to our country's role as a mediator for peace. I am pleased to see that President Ramaphosa will address next month's conference of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Hopefully he will be able to provide some answers on how this move intends to assist in resolving tensions.

I cannot see how taking sides and attacking Israel maintains our Government's integrity as a mediator. Of course, propagandist organisations will say that my being here tonight marks me as having taken sides. But I cannot, and will not, hide the fact that I have had a long friendship with Jews in both South Africa and Israel.

This is born of the simple fact that most of the white South Africans who were at the forefront of our liberation struggle were Jewish.

Must we forget that Mrs Helen Suzman was a lone voice in Parliament speaking against apartheid? Must we pretend not to know that all the white South Africans who were arrested with Mr Nelson Mandela were Jews?

In Psalm 145, which forms part of the Mincha prayers, we are reminded of the duty of one generation to speak to another, so that each successive generation will know the truth and know the past.

As someone of a past generation, let me speak to you about what I know.

When I was a student at the University of Fort Hare, I became a member of the National Union of South African Students. A number of our leaders were Jewish. As I became more and more involved in the liberation struggle, I met and befriended many more Jewish leaders who were working toward the same goals of political franchise, equality and social justice in South Africa.

I was impressed by their sense of patriotism and responsibility. The cause of justice and freedom was so naturally their own cause, even when this was not their fight. Duty, faith and the knowledge of truth led them to make it their fight.

I think that today when we talk about friendship, it doesn't carry the weight it once did. These days someone can be called a friend simply because they follow you on Facebook or they liked your profile. When I speak of having friends in the Jewish community during apartheid, I am talking about people who opened their homes to my wife and I. One of these friends, Arnold Zulman and his beautiful wife, Rosemary have mentored that friendship for the last 50 years of my life. Their home in Durban was our home away from home. To the extent that even though they have migrated abroad, Arnold Zulman has travelled all the way from the United States to comfort us when we buried some of our deceased children. He was at my side in Ulundi on the 27th of August this year when I turned 90 years. This is what I am referring to when I speak of the meaning of true friendship. Not only has this been a personal thing between us as the Buthelezi family and the Zulmans. Mr Zulman has built the very first Com-Tech High School in our Province, in Umlazi Township. From time to time he flies to South Africa to see whether he can still give any more assistance to it.

This all started during the dark days of apartheid when we blacks could not set our black feet in any hotel in South Africa. It has lasted for a whole lifetime. Helen Suzman and her husband Dr Mosie Suzman opened the doors of their home to us when we were in Johannesburg during those days. And so did Clive and Irene Menel. We just can't forget these things so long as we live. Mr Zulman sometimes received calls from anonymous white voices at the dead of night saying: "We know that you have Buthelezi in your home." He was unfazed by this kind of intimidation.

My friendship with the then leader of NUSAS, Professor Phillip Tobias started then, to the end of his days. He was our leader in NUSAS when I was rusticated from the University of Fort Hare. May be the fact that the Jewish people have endured persecution for centuries, made them the kind of compassionate people that most of them are. During my long pilgrimage in the service of South Africa, I felt one day humbled when one of our respected Clergyman Dr Khoza Mgojo compared what I was doing then in the liberation struggle to what Moses did for the Israelites during the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian slavery. The story of the liberation of the Israelites has been one of the most inspiring stores in our liberation struggle. Even looking at our Africans in diaspora, the African Americans, most of their negro spirituals were based on the plight of the Israelites. The story of the Israelites about the Jewish slavery has always been one of the most inspiring stories for us in our own liberation struggle. And we sang them too. They were all based on the story of the Israelites' persecution in Egypt and the story of their liberation struggle.

With the Zulmans we ate at their dining room tables, and slept in their spare beds. We discussed politics in their living rooms and shared ideas in the kitchen around cups of tea. I knew their children by name, and could tell you which subjects they liked at school. We went to the SHUL with them. We attended their children's Bamitzvars.

That was a different time. Built on such strong foundations, those friendships lasted a lifetime.

It was not strange then that I should be invited to address the Jewish Club and to speak to the various leaders of the Board of Deputies over the years. We found ourselves in a shared moment of history, with many shared ideals. Coincidentally the South African Jewish Board of Deputies was formed in the very same year as my uncle, Dr Pixley ka Isaka Seme, founded the South African National Native Congress, Africa's oldest liberation movement, now known as the African National Congress.

Not surprisingly, when I served as Chief Minister of the KwaZulu Government, my administration enjoyed good relations with Israel. In August 1985, Prime Minister Shimon Peres invited me and my wife to visit Israel, where we also met with Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, former Minister Abba Eban and Director-General David Kimche. I never felt the way I felt visiting Israel in any visit to any country in the world. It was extremely exciting to be in Israel.

In that difficult time in our country, I was warmly received in Israel, even by the media. Indeed, the Jerusalem Post credited me with preventing a revolutionary explosion in South Africa. The Washington Jewish Week declared that I would become South Africa's first black president.

But I was most deeply affected by the words of Prime Minister Peres himself, spoken to me in private. He had asked that I come back to see him at the end of my visit to tell him how my trip went. I don't recall any Head of State ever doing that. As we talked, he leaned towards me and said, "We are brothers in suffering". It was a poignant moment, for I realised then that he understood my struggle for South Africa.

Our friendship was cemented, to the extent that two decades later he invited me to Israel again, to celebrate his 80th birthday. It was there that I first met Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. A meeting was then arranged for me in the Prime Minister's office, where General Sharon and I also developed a strong connection.

I found that we shared an understanding of how lonely the path of true leadership can be. We both knew that leadership is not about doing what is easy and popular, but rather doing what is hard and necessary. My friendship with Sharon influenced my perspective on history, on the world we live in, and the much better and long-awaited new world we were trying to forge.

In 2001, when I received the Courage Under Fire Award from the American Conservative Union, I was touched to discover that I shared this Award with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It was good to see him again, in London, a few years ago as we attended Prime Minister Thatcher's funeral.

As you can see, there is a long history to my friendship with Israel and with the Jewish community in South Africa. So when people denigrate me for supporting Israel, I pity their ignorance. As far as my politics is concerned, I have always supported a two-state solution. I made this clear again in September 2015 when I visited Israel at the kind invitation of the South African Friends of Israel, together with several senior political leaders.

When we returned, having met with leaders in both the Knesset and the Mukataa, we were lambasted by the BDS. I was attacked with slanderous propaganda, claiming that I had been one of the staunchest leaders of the Nationalist regime. That is absolutely absurd. But I am not new to that kind of propaganda. So when Israel falls victim to the war of propaganda, I cannot but sympathise. Why is it that even here in South Africa attacks on Palestinians are widely reported, but attacks on Israelis are never mentioned? It reminded me of our own South African people's war. The black-on-black violence that cost us 20,000 lives. Attacks on Inkatha members and leaders hardly made any headlines. Friends of the UDF and ANC victims were attended by high profile religious leaders, and at the funerals of Inkatha victims they were conspicuous by their absence. At that time I described myself as a very lonely Christian. In 1985 I visited our most senior leader in the Anglican Church, Dr Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. I had sent a little memorandum to him through Sir Arthur Snelling, the then Ambassador of the UK in South Africa. Even before we entered his lounge, the Archbishop asked me whether other leaders agreed with me after he read my memo. I said: "Your Grace do all other leaders agree with you, you are a leader too?" Before he replied, I further asked him whether everyone agreed with Christ. He then just looked at me without answering me. I mention these episodes in my life for I see parallels with what is going on about the problems of the Middle East.

Again, it is counter-productive for South Africa to escalate tensions by taking sides. Having experienced our own history, we must surely be champions of dialogue and negotiation. We should be encouraging both sides to continue in dialogue so that a two state solution can become a reality.

We saw here in our own country that intractable problems cannot be resolved with violence and armed conflict. It was impossible to dismantle apartheid through the barrel of the gun.

When the ANC's mission-in-exile took up an armed struggle, I could not agree. Mr Oliver Tambo invited me and Inkatha to London in 1979 to try to persuade us to embrace an armed struggle and to allow our structures to be used to channel weapons and guerrilla soldiers into South Africa.

But I refused. I could not abandon the founding principles of our liberation struggle which had been laid at the foundation of the ANC in 1912. Our forefathers waged this struggle on the principles of non-violence and negotiations. I intended to maintain those principles.

In the end, I was vindicated, for apartheid was dissolved and democratic negotiations began through dialogue, dialogue and more dialogue. When we gathered around the negotiating table, real progress was made. It wasn't quick and it wasn't easy. But dialogue and negotiations brought us further than violence ever could. It brought us into democracy.

But my taking that stand had consequences. The ANC's mission-in-exile turned against me and opened a long campaign of vilification that ripped into my soul. They portrayed me as a sell-out and a puppet of the apartheid regime. For well over a decade they attacked me, and many of the lies they propagated still bear fruit today. This is why I say that you may well be criticised for celebrating my legacy, because many do not know my real legacy. They only know the lies and propaganda.

We were at the height of that conflict when Prime Minister Peres reached out to me. Israeli intelligence is lauded throughout the world as being exceptional. The Prime Minister knew the truth about me, and he acted on it. I will always be grateful. It was wonderful to be with him again here in Johannesburg during his last visit.

I have no shame in telling the truth about Israel or about my friendship with the Jewish community. Indeed, I am proud. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that allows freedom of religion, freedom of expression, press freedom and gender equality. As we celebrate the 70th anniversary since the creation of the State of Israel, these democratic freedoms can only be seen as a great legacy.

It's a legacy worth talking about and a legacy we should learn from. The best way to learn is to engage. When we engage, meaningful change becomes possible. I am not surprised that the Talmud teaches that when the third temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem, education should not be interrupted. Our children should keep learning, not matter what. To me the biggest test of true leadership, is being able to do, or say a difficult thing, as long as it is the right thing to do, or say. To be out of step with a battalion is greatest test of leadership.

In the midst of social crisis, education must continue. In the midst of economic distress, education must be prioritised. No matter what the political circumstances, whether we are fighting for freedom, or fighting for a democracy that overcomes inequality, education remains at the heart of our fight.

So let us teach our children the truth. Let us speak to the next generation. Let us equip them to look beyond hashtags and populist slogans, beyond propaganda and reductionist arguments. Let us give them a solid foundation by teaching them what has come before. And then, let us support them as they begin to build the future.

When I received this invitation, I thought that it was God's way of giving me the opportunity in the twilight of my life to say thank you to the Jewish people.

Friends, I am humbled by this celebration. May Hashem bless you for your kindness towards me.

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