Newly elected South African President Nelson Mandela made a special gesture to Israel by meeting with Israeli President Ezer Weizman before greeting any of the other heads of state gathered for his inauguration ceremonies this week.
And the Israeli leader was paid additional, perhaps unexpected, attention when officials from several countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations — such as Pakistan, Cuba and Sudan — came up to greet Weizman during the ceremonies.
After attending the inauguration, Weizman addressed Israelis living in Johannesburg and told them that Israel anticipates positive relations with the new leadership in South Africa.
He said the newly signed self-rule agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization would augur well for warm ties between Jerusalem and Pretoria.
“There is a great understanding between the Palestinians and Mandela,” Weizman said. “They regarded each other as brothers in trouble, although there is a great difference here.”
Weizman told how he had had a private conversation with Mandela, whom he described as having an active interest in becoming a sponsor of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
After Weizman met with Mandela alone, the South African president asked PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who also attended the inauguration, to join them.
‘MR. PRESIDENT. WE ARE COUSINS’
“He calls Arafat by his first name, Yasser,” Weizman told the group of Israelis. “They embraced, and he said he and Arafat were brothers. I said: ‘Then, Mr. President, we are cousins.’ “
Weizman said the new South Africa will attempt to hold an important political and economic position, not only in Africa but worldwide.
Regarding the role of the country’s Jewish community, Weizman said Mandela “honestly speaks about regarding Jews as an element that will assist him in building the new South Africa.”
In an effort to reach out and reassure South African Jews that they will have a place in the country’s new political configuration, Mandela last Saturday visited the largest synagogue in the Southern Hemisphere – Cape Town’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation — to attend a Shabbat service there.
The synagogue was packed with congregants who came to hear Mandela speak, and some members of the temple were sporting yarmulkes in the black, green and gold colors of the Mandelaled African National Congress.
Among the dignitaries who came to the synagogue to hear Mandela’s message of reconciliation were Israeli Ambassador Alon Liel; South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris; the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Jack Steinhorn; and the national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Mervyn Smith.
At Tuesday’s inauguration, Mandela also made a point of including the country’s Jewish population in the ceremonies by having Harris sit in the front row of the podium. That row also included other religious leaders, Mandela himself and Deputy Presidents Thabo Mbeki and F.W. de Klerk.
Harris, who was among the Christian, Hindu and Muslim spiritual leaders attending the inaugural, read a message of peace from the prophet Isaiah before the crowd of 150,000.
In his inaugural address, Mandela also sounded the theme of peace, saying that South Africa was celebrating “a common victory for justice, for peace, for human dignity.”
He called on the international community “to continue to stand by us as we tackle the challenges of building peace, prosperity, non-racialism and democracy.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment for bridging the chasms that divide us has come.
“The time to build is upon us,” said the man who had risen from being one of the world’s best-known political prisoners to become his country’s president.
Mandela pledged during his address to build a society based on egalitarian principles.
“We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity — a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world,” Mandela said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.