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A reflection on South African Heroes



On the eve of the municipal elections this year in August I stopped to marvel at this unique period in South Africa’s history.

It was a week in which serious questions were posed to South Africans as a collective. The one with which I resonated was put as a remark at my Shabbos table. A guest of ours remarked, “Rainbow nation – it was always a myth!”

And I wondered – is it so?

I thought to myself, of whom am I proud in South Africa? Why would I bear a feeling of pride in being a South African on the eve of these elections?

Well, I thought, firstly I’m proud of Nhlanhla Nene. When appointed, I remember him being proudly touted as the first black African to hold the position of finance minister. What no one knew was that he was about to undergo a baptism of fire in the deepest purgatories of corruption and nepotism. No one knew that he had a ramrod straight spine and the strength of principle to withstand what must surely have been an all-out assault on the country’s treasury. What country can boast of having such a den of bribery and coercion on the one hand, and on the other hand, leadership of such sterling character? He protected each one of us at the cost of his job, and foregoing the sure and sordid rewards which would have been his, had he sold us all down the river.

And I’m proud of Thuli Madonsela (who isn’t?) She has shielded us all by ensuring our constitution is actually upheld and that all branches of government are held accountable. She’s done so through the insults of every foul-mouthed politician in the country (which is a given) and through threats to her life, bizarre accusations of being a CIA spy and more.

And of course I’m proud we have Pravin Gordhan, the next to place his finger in the dyke. As of this writing, we’ve all been witness to the campaign of intimidation and worse conducted against him as he has struggled to stimulate our economy and at the same time halt the looting of the country’s fiscus. I try imagine what it’s like getting up in the morning for Pravin – an honest man, with a photo of Madiba in his living room. I see him lying in bed, head in hands, praying for the strength, the cunning, the integrity to fight the good fight against evil. I watch him walk past that photo of Madiba and glance up, looking for encouragement in the past, because he is so alone in the present.

These are not ordinary public servants. Rather, they are exceptional people; leaders no country could reasonably expect to gather together in such a short period of time. Just one of them would fill the quota of any normal country for a decade!

And we should realise our mazal.

If we cast our eyes westwards, what do we see in America, the goldene medinah? Do they have one leader like this? One admirable voice thundering with quiet principle above the din of bizarre politicking?

Instead they get stuff like, “I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” Or how about, “The beauty of me is that I’m very rich,” or “my fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.”

If we glance at Britain (once Great), there is similar silliness. We were all witness to the bizarre Brexit show led by a journalist-politician, Boris Johnson, who holds the dubious distinction of having won the Spectator’s competition for composing the most offensive limerick about the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan. And after headlining the Brexit campaign, Boris shocked everyone by refusing to pick up the fallen banner of a fractured Britain, leaving the country shell-shocked and broken. And then a week later he became foreign secretary. This is a person who has insulted almost every major foreign political leader, saying of Hilary Clinton, “She’s got dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” and commenting on “The Donald” that, “the only reason I wouldn't go to some parts of New York is the real risk of meeting Donald Trump.” This is the top of the crop in the UK! He has a great turn of phrase and a sharp wit, but he’s no Churchill.

Yes, we often expect politicians to be inane, amusing, incorrigible, unprincipled, corrupt, cowardly and stomach turning, but surely we need to be openly grateful to Hashem for a providence which has allowed the growth of role models of such a different calibre in South Africa.

Contrast all of the puerility above with the following from Thuli, “I need to listen well so that I hear what is not said.” There’s just no comparison! In the midst of plenty, comfort and affluence, the UK and the USA have not produced greatness over the past few years; whilst embattled South Africa has women and men who confound us all, again and again by transformative leadership.

This August I reached two conclusions.

Firstly, part of the reason we have such people in our midst must surely be the fact that we were privileged to have Nelson Mandela as a lodestar for our country. Mandela, or at least the myth of the man, has so thoroughly marinated our collective thinking of what we should and could become, that some people take it really seriously: perhaps Nene, Madonsela and Pravin actually do? And these four become a challenge to us all – a challenge to each one of us who pays the R50 bribe to the corrupt cop instead of taking the fine, to those of us who are too creative on our taxes and so on. If they can endanger reputation, life and limb, can we not play our part a little better? And if an ex-school teacher named Thuli can lose her husband so young, raise her kids on her own, become an advocate and achieve so much, can we not also strive higher?

And secondly, what I am happily not surprised to see is that when many of us think of the four trailblazers above, Nene, Madonsela, Gordhan and Mandela, we think of them as people who inspire us, unaware of the colour of their skin. These are the names that we trust. We sleep better at night knowing that these fabulous four are around and watching out for us, from below and on high; battling on so that destruction will never again be visited on our country; they are like the rainbow G-d set as a sign so long ago that a flood would never again destroy the earth. Our rainbow has black and brown and pink and a whole host in it, but we no longer notice; we simply appreciate every day we see it up there.

And that is, to my mind, a rainbow nation. It is no myth. A nation that has undergone significant transformation in one of its most critical areas: its heroes. Where the people to whom we aspire, the people who motivate us are beyond colour and also beyond expectations.

My prayer this Rosh Hashanah is that each one of us see that rainbow, remember its source, appreciate it, and act as if we deserve it every day; and then, please G-d, we will.

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