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George Baumgarten

Memories of Mandela: His First U.N. Visit Highlighted Ties to P.L.O., Jewish Community

George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent, January 11, 2014

By the time he was released in 1990, Nelson Mandela had become a legendary figure—locked up for nearly three decades in Robben Island and then in Pollsmoor. Few had seen him face-to-face since the mid 1960’s. He shared with only two other 20th Century leaders—Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.—the mantle of non-violent, persevering prophetic leadership.


I was one of the very first journalists to question Mandela, on his very first visit to the United Nations in the Fall of 1991. This account is from my recollection of that encounter, which is very vivid and almost fresh in my memory. I came to the press conference as the representative and correspondent—then as now—for Jewish newspapers in North America. This was in fact at the very same General Assembly which would repeal—just two months later—the notorious 1975 resolution equating Zionism with Racism.


I was fortunate to be called upon at that press conference. I asked Mandela about the links of the African National Congress with the Palestine Liberation Organization (P.L.O.). The A.N.C. was in fact a long-established political organization, which predated the establishment of the system of apartheid (separation, or “apart-ness”), which was instituted with the election of the National Party government of Prime Minister D.F. Malan in 1948. Previously, there had been a somewhat less radically racist government, under the British-oriented “United Party”. Their policy—not quite all that different (but perhaps more sensitive to Commonwealth and World public opinion) was one described simply as “separate development”. The A.N.C., in fact, even predated Mandela’s birth, having been founded six years earlier in 1912.


I was not, of course, surprised by Mandela’s defense of the A.N.C.’s relationship with the P.L.O. (“No one is going to tell us…with whom we should form relationships”.) . What did surprise me was his manner of speaking. Here was a man who spoke so slowly and deliberately, that one got a sense that he was turning over each word and phrase in his mind…before it ever passed his lips. I have never gotten quite the same impression—in all my years of questioning world leaders before and since—of such a thoughtful, deliberate response.


In theory, of course, Mandela was right. He was asserting the A.N.C.’s independence, as well as his own. They were making their own policy, and would then have to bear all its consequences, come what may. But—as mentioned above—what impressed me was the deliberation and carefulness of his speech. Mandela came from a long line of native South African chiefs. He is believed to have grown up in a home where the primary language was the native Xhosa tongue of the Eastern Cape Province. But he must have learned English (and perhaps eventually some Afrikaans as well), from quite an early age. So he was speaking a long-familiar but not-quite-native tongue. But it was one in which he—trained as a lawyer—expressed himself with carefully-reasoned eloquence.


Nelson Mandela, in fact, had a long history of links to the Jewish community, and particularly with Jewish lawyers in South Africa. In his book, The Struggle is My Life, I recall him speaking especially of a lawyer named Skidelsky: “To Mr. Skidelsky (in my recollection) I will be forever grateful”. Skidelsky was the first and greatest of Mandela’s Jewish legal “mentors”. This writer also remembers speaking to another Jewish attorney from South Africa, who later moved to Australia. He recalled having taken some cases to court for Mandela and his partner, Oliver Tambo (for whom Johannesburg’s International Airport has now been renamed). I heard Tambo speak in the late 1980’s, in New York’s Riverside Church. He was obviously a sincere and thoughtful man, but rather lacking in his partner’s oratorical gifts.


This somewhat bizarre procedure points up the essential and abiding insidiousness of the apartheid system, particularly as it affects the legal profession: Blacks could train for the law, and qualify as lawyers…but could not practice, or take any cases to court.


Mandela then made clear that he was familiar with South Africa’s Jewish community, and its importance in the life and economy of the country: “We have a large Jewish community in South Africa, which is involved in every facet of our national life”. He plainly wanted to keep them so involved, and in South Africa (Some of them have left—particularly to Israel—but most have stayed.). There is an active, vibrant Jewish community in South Africa to this day—primarily in Johannesburg, but also in Capetown, Durban and several other cities.


Mandela also revealed on that occasion that he had received an invitation to visit Israel. He was non-committal as to when or if he would go, but he did visit Israel later, during his Presidency. Mandela was also said to have received some training from the Mossad, while visiting Ethiopia in 1962. Ethiopia (then under Emperor Haile Selassie) was at that time very friendly with Israel, and there was even an El Al route to Addis Ababa. The Mandela Foundation now denies this Mossad training story. Is the story true? Very possibly. Mandela may well not have known that it was a Mossad project, but he certainly knew that his trainers were Israeli, and is said to have greeted them with “Shalom!”. I do know that this was much the same period when Israel was training some of the early fighters of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRETILIN), as was acknowledged to me by their President, Joaquim Chissano, on his first visit to the United Nations in 1987.


In short, Mandela was a great, nonviolent, charismatic and unusually patient leader. One might not always agree with him, but one always knew that he would speak with a carefully reasoned voice, and in words of rare eloquence.

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