In the early 1940s, at a time when it was virtually impossible for a South African of color to secure a professional apprenticeship, the Jewish law firm Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman gave a young black man a job as a clerk.
It was among the first encounters in what would become a lifelong relationship between Nelson Mandela and South Africa’s small Jewish community, impacting the statesman’s life at several defining moments — from his arrival in Johannesburg from the rural Transkei region as a young man to his years of struggle, imprisonment and ascension to the presidency.
Mandela, who died Dec. 5 at 95, wrote of the early job in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” and acknowledged the disproportionate role that Jews played in the struggle against apartheid. Lazar Sidelsky, one of the firm’s partners, treated him with “enormous kindness.”
“I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice,” Mandela wrote.
South Africa’s Jews remembered Mandela as a close friend, one with deep ties to community figures and a partner in the decades-long effort to end apartheid.
“I was extremely privileged to lead the community during his presidency,” said Mervyn Smith, who was chairman and later president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
For Mandela, a leading opponent of apartheid, Jews were vital allies. But his ties to prominent South African Jews were personal as well as political.
The former president’s second marriage, to Winnie Madikizela in 1958, took place at the home of Ray Harmel, a Jewish anti-apartheid activist. Harmel made Winnie’s wedding dress at Mandela’s request, according to David Saks’ history “Jewish Memories of Mandela.”
When Mandela married again, in 1998, he invited Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris to offer a private blessing on the nuptials that were scheduled to take place on Shabbat.
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 in the village of Mvezo. As a young lawyer he was active in the African National Congress, which was beginning to challenge laws it considered unjust and discriminatory.
In the 1950s, Mandela was tried for treason. He was acquitted with the help of a defense team led by Israel Maisels. Several years later, when he was accused of attempting to overthrow the apartheid regime during the Rivonia trial, Mandela was defended by several Jewish lawyers.
Mandela was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 1964. He was released in 1990, and four years later he was elected president. Among his appointees was Arthur Chaskalson, a member of his defense team during the Rivonia trial, as the first president of the new Constitutional Court; he later became chief justice.
Mandela’s ties with the mostly Orthodox Jewish community, numbering about 67,000 at the time of his death, continued during his political career. On the first Shabbat after his election, he visited the Marais Road Shul in Sea Point — a significant symbolic gesture.
On Israel, Mandela’s relationship with the Jewish community was not free of controversy. The ANC cultivated close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Mandela warmly embraced its leader, Yasser Arafat.
Confronted with Jewish protests, Mandela was dismissive, insisting that his relations with other countries would be determined by their attitudes toward the liberation movement.
“If the truth alienates the powerful Jewish community in South Africa, that’s too bad,” Mandela was reported to have said, according to Gideon Shimoni, author of “Community and Conscience: The Jews in Apartheid South Africa.”
According to Saks, Mandela stressed his respect for Israel’s right to exist even as he defended his relationships with Palestinian leaders. Illustrative of his policy of inclusivity, Mandela accepted an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 1997 when many in his party remained opposed to any ties with Israel.
“He made us proud to be South Africans,” Smith said. “His presence at any communal occasion was electrifying. The Jewish community’s pride in its relationship with President Mandela will be forever enduring.”