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On anniversary of Mandela's death, an Israeli friend looks back

Nelson Mandela was eventually freed from prison in 1990 and went on to become South Africa's president between 1994 and 1999 before dying in 2013 aged 95
Trevor Samson (AFP/File)
An interview with an Israeli ambassador who was in the room when Mandela was told he had won the Nobel prize

When Nelson Mandela stepped out of South Africa's Victor Verster prison on February 11th, 1990, no one could possibly have imagined the national grief and sense of loss that would accompany his death two decades later on December 5th, 2013.

By 1990 many South Africans had never known a world in which Nelson Mandela was a free man. He was sentenced to life imprisonment during the Rivonia Trial in 1963 for conspiring to overthrow South Africa’s white minority government. Mandela served 27 years behind bars before being released on his own terms and amid an intensifying chorus of condemnation by the international community.

Mandela's perseverance stunned many, but it was the absence of malice towards those who had oppressed and imprisoned him that inspired the world. Dr. Alon Liel, Israel's former ambassador to South Africa, said this admirable attribute -- his greatest legacy -- stemmed from "his eternal optimism."

“He always saw the positive in the human being and not the negative. He did not blame any one individual for his suffering but was often mad at the leaders and their policies. Mandela was even friends with his prison guards and believed that they were inherently good people. [Mandela] always saw the glass as half full and this is what gave him the readiness to sacrifice for the cause of freedom,” Liel told i24NEWS.

The former president believed that his dream of achieving unity in South Africa would only be realized when all people were given equal opportunity. He labored to bring together various factions in the country.

photo credit: Courtesy: Alon Liel

“He was always very inclusive in his approach and he understood that you cannot have a South Africa without the inclusion of the whites,” Liel said. Mandela created a multi-party government which presided over the country from 1994 until 1997, with the aim of correcting the injustices of Apartheid.

Mandela saw reconciliation and not confrontation as the primary task of his presidency and he oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under the Apartheid regime.

“It was very unusual for a successful politician to be so patient and forthcoming. Yet, his approach was that [South Africans] cannot forget what was done during Apartheid but [they] can now start to look forward – the sky is the limit – [they] must and will upgrade and improve relations,” Liel says.

Mandela’s longing to overcome centuries of oppression and division went beyond the realm of politics. During the Rugby World Cup, hosted by South Africa in 1995, he encouraged black South Africans to back the formerly despised national rugby team – the Springboks. The former president saw this as an opportunity.

“[Mandela] wanted to engage everybody and this was his way of doing it," Liel says.

In what has become a resonant moment, Mandela wore a Springbok jersey at the final match and presented the winning trophy to Captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner. The cheering in the stadium had as much to do with Mandela’s gesture as it did with the result of the match.

Liel describes Mandela as an “extremely charismatic and humble human being”, recalling the day in 1993 when Mandela was told he would be presented the Nobel Peace Prize alongside his deputy F.W. de Klerk.

“I was in the room with him that day and it was simply amazing. [He] was honored and yet at the same time claimed that [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yizhak Rabin deserved the award more than him for his role in the Oslo Peace Accords," Liel said. "That moment showed us all who Mandela really was and just how much he appreciated the Oslo declaration.”

Indeed, Mandela did not draw the line at eradicating injustice in his native South Africa but pushed for fairness and equality of all people even in culturally diverse regions like the Middle East, often stating that “South Africans would not be free until the Palestinian people are free”.

Walter Dhladhla (AFP/File)

Nonetheless, Liel says, Mandela had great respect for the Jewish people and refrained from brutal criticisms of Zionism and the State of Israel.

"He had a lot of respect for the Jewish people and the state of Israel and was very aware of what Zionism meant. [Mandela] called for all the whites who had left South Africa to return except the Jews because the Jews went back to their homeland," Liel recalls.

"However, he also treated the Palestinians as his comrades and had a deep appreciation for their help during the conflict years in South Africa. He encouraged Palestinian freedom and pushed to enhance their rights and independence while never brutally criticizing Israel for the lack thereof.”

Mandela showed the world the true values of leadership and forgiveness. His presidency lasted only one term from 1994 until 1999, and although retired from politics, Mandela continued to lend his support to combating poverty, HIV/AIDS and many other issues still prevalent in South Africa today. He dedicated his life to helping the betterment of humanity until his last breath.

“I was very lucky to have worked with him. [He is] a friend I will never forget,” Liel says.

Mandela could have easily and understandably have sought revenge, his enduring legacy is that he didn’t.


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