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  • Writer's pictureJodi Samuels

Memories Of Mandela

Although I left South Africa over 20 years ago I have still been caught up in the emotion and passion surrounding Nelson Mandela’s death. He was a true statesman and leader. He was a complex person who was more than a terrorist, freedom fighter and president. For those who did not live in South Africa at the time you may not appreciate just how on the edge the country was. It was his leadership as a peacemaker that allowed South Africa to be a success story.

Mandela’s death has resulted in a great deal of discussion amongst friends and my South African ex-pat network. It has also evoked many emotions and lots of memories.

Just talking about a country on the edge reminds me of Gavin, my husband’s time working as a doctor at Baragwanath hospital in Soweto – the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere. He would work 36 hour shifts in the emergency room and have to wear rubber boots because there was so much blood. The victims of the tribal in-fighting lined up in triage with gunshot wounds or in body bags lined up waiting to go to the mortuary. He also worked in a clinic in Alexander Township which according to the Apartheid government was an illegal squatter settlement. Although 3 million people lived there, there was no public hospital so Gavin’s medical school staffed a clinic with final year medical students. The township was a war zone and he shares unreal stories from his time there. The irony is that the township with extreme poverty and hardship was just a few kilometers away from where I grew up in a fancy, wealthy Jewish neighborhood. Unless you were a doctor like Gavin most white people never stepped foot into a place like Soweto or any township. The images they have were from CNN just like yours.

We grew up with a media ban on publishing any photos of Mandela. We were taught in school that the ANC were terrorists. Black history was not taught and we were indoctrinated to fear black people. At school we frequently had drills on what to do if the ANC attacked. In my mind images Nelson Mandela looked like a pirate with scars in his face and evil eyes. The first photos of Mandela were published the week of his release. I was in my final year of high school. I recall my shock when I saw a gentle looking grandfather with poise and dignity. The apartheid regime had manipulated all our minds.

The indoctrination impacted me at a very young age. I still remember this incident like it was yesterday. I was a lot older when I understood the meaning. I was 5 years old at nursery school. Each child contributed supplies from tissues to soap etc. I went to the rest room and washed my hands with soap. The soap had a distinct smell that was typical of the soap that black people used. I started crying and refused to come out of the bathroom because I smelled like a black person. At age 5 I may not have understood the intricacies of Apartheid but I did know that in my world it was not good to smell like a black person.

Another one of my favorite ironies was the situation with domestic help. Everyone had a nanny that lived on your property. Apartheid laws defined that the domestic quarters had to be a set distance from the house with small high windows. The nanny’s lived on their white boss’s property bringing up the white kids while their children were in government designated homelands looked after by grandmothers with infrequent visits from their own mother. Another person’s mother. My parents have had the same lady work for over 30 years. I call her mama to this day. A few brave families defied the laws and allowed the nannies kids to live in the property. Gavin’s family were one such family and he shares many terrifying stories of midnight police raids which were common and the fear of the kids being caught. These little kids were in our bridal party. We got married before apartheid had officially ended so we definitely raised eyebrows. There were so many nanny ironies. Jews always patted themselves on their backs that they were good to the domestic help. Good meant that they gave the nanny a television and meat every night for dinner. While it was better than the norm it’s sad that Jews given our history could be proud of doing so little. I also laugh at how our parents entrusted us kids with the nanny for safe keeping while they were at work. Of course the locked up their jewels, the meat and even the cocoa pops.

As a white person we grew up in a land of milk and honey but we also knew that our world was precarious. Yes things have changed dramatically. People lead good lives but live in gated communities with private security guards and private police forces in each neighborhood. In fact without this private security people used to live with fear of muggings, car-jacking and home invasions. The streets are now relatively safe for religious Jews to walk on Shabbat and holidays. The ultimate irony was summed up in our last trip home for Pesach. We were walking with my 8 year old nephew on Shabbat. A private security vehicle was speeding down the road and my son asked what was going on. My nephew responded that there must be a robbery. He then asked Meron “What’s your private police force in NY called?” Meron “We don’t have that in NY” and my nephew looked confused and said “So how do you go anywhere, how can you walk outside?”

Originally published: December 17, 2016

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