Our group started our exploration of South Africa with a trip to Robben Island to learn about the operation of that infamous Alcatraz of Apartheid. Walking through the gates of the prison brought a harsh reality to what we had all known about South Africa, Nelson Mandela, and the long road that this nation is still on towards what it calls the “new” South Africa. This prison is a symbol of how powerful the thirst for freedom can be and how dangerous contrary thought and action can be to a government subjugating its own population. As we would soon learn through a series of meetings with local Jews and survivors of the Apartheid era, the end of Apartheid marked the beginning of a new struggle toward economic and political stability.
From Robben Island, we went on a tour of the beautiful Cape of Good Hope and Cape Town area. It is truly one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with rocky outcroppings sloping severely down to beautiful blue ocean. We then capped our first day in Cape Town with a meeting with several prominent members of the young Jewish community in Cape Town. This community faces many of the same issues that the young Jewish community in the United States faces: intermarriage, the difficulty of balancing many different activities while staying involved in the community, and the discomfort that comes with being supportive of Israel in the face of the complexities of the political situation in the Middle East. On this last point, there are major concerns within the South African Jewish community regarding the ANC’s historical relationship with the PLO. Interestingly, just as Jews stood in solidarity with Blacks in the United States during our civil rights struggle, many high profile South African Jews worked against apartheid, and many were jailed as political prisoners for their efforts or went into exile due to threats by the state police (Albie Sachs, former Constitutional Court judge, is one such example -- he went to Mozambique, where S.A. secret special ops team blew him up. He survived, having lost an eye and an arm).
On our second day in Cape Town, we met with a series of individuals who expanded our understanding of the difficulties of life under apartheid. In the morning, we had a breakfast meeting with Ann Harris, who moved with her husband, Cyril Harris from London when he was named Chief Rabbi of South Africa in 1987 (served until his death in 2004). She is renowned for having participated in a vital meeting with leaders of the ANC (later to be the governing party), including O.R. Tambo, the leader of the ANC in exile at that time, before it was clear that the apartheid government would be forced to give up power. After the fall of the apartheid government, she and her husband championed interreligious efforts in the new South Africa and had a close relationship with Nelson Mandela as he built the new government. In the years since, she has worked to bring people from South Africa to Israel because, she says, people have begun to realize that they do not know that the truth about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians really is. Nelson Mandela asked Cyril Harris to officiate the wedding to his second wife, which he couldn't do, but gave the couple his blessing on their wedding day.
We then met with Albie Sachs, one of the biggest (Jewish) figures in the anti-apartheid struggle, and a former justice of the Constitutional Court (appointed to it in 1994 by Nelson Mandela), who introduced us to the concept of “Ubuntu,” or universal human respect, which is the underlying principle of the new South Africa. Israel and Palestinians, he said, have much to learn from South Africa’s approach to reconciliation.