Seeing Mandela’s miracle: A trip from Israel to South Africa

This piece was originally published as ‘Coming home from the land of miracles’ in the Jerusalem Post, April 11, 2007, after a family trip I took to South Africa. I think it says something about the difference between that country and Israel, and is also a description of the new society that Mandela and his comrades wrought.

I was watching my seven-year-old boy and some black kids chasing each other around a jumping castle at a family restaurant in Johannesburg, a sight that could not have been seen a generation ago. After the joy of it passed, I got a little wistful. What were the chances, I thought, of my son running around a jumping castle with a bunch of Arab kids in Israel – and so freely, so unself-consciously, with their Jewish and Arab parents sitting around hardly paying attention, treating it  just as normal Israeli kid behavior?

I don’t know of a restaurant, or park, or any public place in this country where that could happen. The way I saw blacks and whites mingling easily during my vacation in South Africa – or at least middle-class blacks and whites – was something I don’t think I’ll ever see between Jews and Arabs over here. Frankly, I wouldn’t bet that my seven-year-old son will ever see it, either.

And maybe the worst part is that I don’t think most Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs are bothered by this. Some definitely are, but most Jews and Arabs here do not want to mix with the “other kind,” unless it’s to sell them something. The Arabs would like equality, of course, but otherwise the majority of them seem as agreeable with the separatist, segregationist, mutually hostile Israeli status quo as a majority of Jews are.

My wife is from South Africa, and I’ve been there several times since my first visit a few months after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, which spelled the beginning of the end of apartheid. Over the years, I saw Johannesburg shopping malls fill with black and white customers being served by black and white clerks, everyone sauntering around each other, standing in line together, smiling politely, without a hint of tension in the air. It was like apartheid had never existed. Once I ran into a Jewish school principal I’d met and mentioned this to him, adding that I couldn’t imagine this happening between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and he nodded in agreement. “There just isn’t the kind of hatred here that you have in Israel,” he explained.

 On this last trip I was told – first by a Jewish friend of the family and then by a black tour guide – that it was South Africa’s blacks, not the whites, who deserved credit for dissolving the hatred because they were the ones who had to forgive.

Arabs and Jews, at least in Israel, I think we can agree, are not the forgiving kind.

But then I don’t think too many South Africans, black, white or other, believed a generation ago that people of all races – or, again, at least middle-class people of all races – would one day live together in their country like they do today. Especially in the Cape region, we saw blacks, whites, Indians and “coloreds” eating, shopping, working and traveling side by side. We saw mixed couples, mixed families, mixed groups of friends, and people seemed to take it for granted.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of a wall-to-wall utopia; everyone knows South Africa has horrific problems with AIDS, crime and poverty. All the beautiful houses are walled and electronically fenced; on the lush, green, residential streets, signs warn of “armed response.” In Johannesburg, white people for the most part only walk outdoors to get in or out of their cars, while the only people seen on the streets of their neighborhoods are their black gardeners and maids. Downtown Jo’burg, which has filled up with refugees from Zimbabwe, Congo, Nigeria and other African “failed states,” looks like scorched earth, a trash-heaped, predatory no-go zone. In the countryside are tin shantytowns that look like sprawling junkyards.

But since the African National Congress took over in 1994, the government has built 2 million sturdy homes for poor blacks and “coloreds,” and says it will build 2.5 million more. Thirteen years after the end of white rule, there is a large South African middle-class of blacks and other non-whites, millions of them, and a still larger second generation is coming of age. With a population that’s 80% black, the average yearly income is over $12,000 and rising.

Despite a massive underclass and the awful violence and disease that comes with it, South Africa is more than a success story – it’s a fairy tale come true, a miracle. In 13 years that nation has achieved so much more than any level-headed observer could have predicted, while disproving all the doom-sayers, including the Israeli officials who warned  South African Jews to hurry up and make aliya before the blacks took revenge and chased them out of their swimming pools. On this last vacation, I could see the insecurity in Johannesburg’s Jewish neighborhoods from the rows of street lamps pasted with handbills for tours to Israel and an upcoming Matisyahu concert.

But the encounter that inspired me most was not with the generous-hearted blacks or self-confident Jews we came across, but with the team of 15-year-old Afrikaner rugby players from Pretoria we saw at Cape Town’s Table Mountain. These kids belong to South Africa’s supposedly “defeated” race, yet they seemed anything but defeated – they were laughing and carrying on with each other in Afrikaans, and going up to all the tourists they passed and asking them in English where they were from, how they liked South Africa, etc.

I didn’t talk politics with them, only rugby and American football. I don’t know what they think of the ANC, or President Thabo Mbeki, or blacks in general. But they seemed completely at home, and happy to be there. They weren’t “circling the wagons,” they were venturing out. They were curious and unafraid of people different from themselves. They were young, these Afrikaner boys from Pretoria, just like their country.

Myself, I’ve always felt at home in Israel. But it doesn’t inspire me like South Africa does, certainly not lately. This country has become more and more inward-looking, suspicious and closed. Its spirit has been growing old.

I’d like to say that if South Africa can do it, so can we. But the sad truth is that most Jews and Arabs in Israel really do not want to live together. They much prefer living apart. I don’t know if there’s an Afrikaans word that describes this social arrangement to the letter, but I do know of one that captures its spirit.

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