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Spoke in NY & ate with Jewry in Brussels

The delightful story of how a youthful Howard Sackstein engineered a dinner for Euro-Jewry with Nelson Mandela in Brussels – en route home from addressing the UN – encompasses a plethora of Jewish people and their encounters with Madiba. This is THE must read story of the week and users can even buy the book!

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HOWARD SACKSTEIN

Reprinted with permission, originally published under the title: “The day a nation voted – by HOWARD SACKSTEIN” in a 90th birthday tribute book titled: MADIBA – A TRIBUTE FROM SA JEWRY

The day a nation voted

It was a warm Sunday afternoon on 11 February 1990. Judy Froman, Kevin Joselowitz and I were watching the endless delays on SABC TV waiting for Nelson Mandela to walk free from Victor Verster Prison, in Paarl. My mind raced back to my legal principal at Werksmans Attorneys, Dov Judah, who had repeatedly warned me against campaigning for Mandela’s release.

Brusseld meetJudah had been at Wits University with the then young Mandela, and he had been unimpressed by Mandela’s participation in class and his dedication to the law.

RIGHT: from left, Howard, Madiba and Bantu Holomisa engage with a Jewish leader in Brussels 

Judah was not alone, for many in our community, this would be a day of great uncertainty and disquiet.

As Madiba walked free at about 4:15pm, hand in hand with Winnie at his side, crowds shown on TV erupted into spontaneous jubilation. The northern suburbs of Johannesburg, were however, eerily silent. Judy, Kevin and I climbed into my car and headed straight to Hillbrow. On the streets of the inner city thousands of people ululated, danced and sang in a frenetic explosion of euphoria. Up and down Pretoria Street and Kotze Street all of us, waving leaf covered branches, toi-toi’d, sang and screamed until we were too exhausted to continue.

Poor planning left him homeless

After addressing an overflowing crowd of more than 50 000 people in Cape Town, Mandela flew to Johannesburg. Much of the release was poorly planned and Madiba had nowhere to stay upon his arrival in Johannesburg.

ANC activist Jean de la Harpe was assigned the responsibility for finding Mandela a place to sleep for the first few nights. She immediately called Barbra Buntman, a renowned Jewish anti-apartheid campaigner and chairperson of the Five Freedoms Forum (the umbrella body of white anti-apartheid groups). Barbra was ecstatic about the choice of her home for Madiba, but was forced to decline because her husband’s relatives were visiting from the UK and she had nowhere else to put them.

Brussels - Sisa & Howard hi-resWith the Buntmans out of contention, Mandela moved into the home of Sally Cohen. Jean later told the story of how they ran out of food in the house and she was instructed to go shopping for the Mandela entourage.

Groceries thrown over the wall

In the chaos and confusion of the time, Mandela’s security refused to allow Jean and her shopping back into the house. Desperate to get the food to Mandela, Jean threw the bags of groceries over the wall of Sally Cohen’s home.

LEFT: Present SA Ambassador to Israel Sisa Ngombane and Howard Sackstein catch up in June – their first meeting since Brussels

The excitement of the release was soon dampened when Mandela met with Yasser Arafat, hugging the guerrilla leader and declaring that he was not concerned about offending “the powerful Jewish community”. For those of us in the leadership of Jews for Social Justice (the Jewish anti-apartheid movement), Mandela’s actions jeopardised the thawing relations between the ANC and the organised Jewish community we had worked so hard to achieve.

Over the previous few years, Jews for Social Justice had facilitated dialogue between the Mass Democratic Movement and the Jewish community. In 1989, JSJ had sent a Jewish delegation to meet the ANC in exile in Lusaka. The Jewish delegation included Ann Harris, wife of the then Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

Brusels - howardAfter the Mandela comments, former political prisoner and my co-vice chairperson of JSJ, Maxine Hart, immediately called one of Mandela’s chief aides, Terror Lekota. Together we facilitated a meeting between Lekota and representatives of the organised Jewish community. My parents, Maurice and Helen offered their home as the venue for the meeting. My memories of the evening are, however, marred by our family dog trying to bite Terror Lekota upon his arrival.

LEFT: Howard 2013-style, less hair, less intense and always in party-mode – at the Absa Jewish Achievers event which he has run for the past 3 years

For the rest of the evening, the dog and my parents remained banished to the bedroom as the parties met. Lekota, who had close ties to many of us in JSJ, understood the fears and neuroses of the Jewish community and promised to ensure a symbolic act by Mandela to re-assure the community of their welcome place within a soon-to-be changing South Africa.

Within no time, Mandela summoned Helen Suzman and Isy Maisels to his bedside in hospital to pass on a message of comfort to the community. Mandela’s words of reassurance were widely publicised within the community and went some way to allay their fears.

Later on, the diminutive and spunky Maxine Hart, never afraid to confront the apartheid government or a struggle icon when she thought he was wrong, would meet Mandela at a private party and lambaste him for the thoughtlessness of his comments.

Euro-Jews wanted to host Madiba

In early 2003, I received a request from the World Jewish Congress’ European political arm, they wished to host Mandela at a function in Brussels. I assured them the request was impossible but they were persistent. Months and months of negotiations ensued between myself and Shell House. Finally, with the assistance of Jesse Duarte, a date was set for a Mandela dinner. Madiba would fly to address the United Nations in September 2003 and, on his way back to South Africa, he would stop for an evening in Brussels for a dinner.

The dinner was a sophisticated and sparkling affair punctuated with expensive champagne, white-gloved waiters, silver cutlery and canapés. The Chateau de La Hulpe outside Brussels was filled with dignitaries who had flown in from throughout Europe. The most prominent business leaders in Europe lined up with ambassadors to the European Union to have their photographs taken with Mandela.

During his eloquent speech to the gathering, Mandela spoke about his association over decades with the Jewish community, about his Jewish lawyers and about Helen Suzman and how she had campaigned as a lone voice in Parliament for his release. He even spoke about a Jewish lawyer named Lazar Sidelsky, the only man willing to give him law articles in his youth.

The Mandela delegation included many of the leading figures within the ANC at the time and Allan Hirsch, deputy head of the President’s policy unit, recently reminisced to me that that evening was one of the most impressive gatherings he has ever attended.

Sorry, fella, no job here

When Madiba finally found a home and moved into Houghton, he went house to house to introduce himself to his new neighbours. A friend of mine later told me the story that Mandela knocked on his grandfather’s front door to introduce himself. The elderly Jewish man, upon seeing the distinguished black gentleman, but not recognising him, immediately apologised to him for being unable to offer him a job.

Mandela assured him that he had another job waiting and the gentleman need not worry.

Over my six years of running elections with the Independent Electoral Commission, I dealt with Mandela on a number of occasions.

Lying on the lawns of the Union Building in 1994, watching Mandela take the oath of office was a mixture of ecstasy and relief. I had been so sleep deprived during the chaos of our first democratic election that, at one point in time, I fell asleep during the inauguration.

I will, however, never forget the fly-over by the SANDF trailing the new South African flag – for at that moment, for the first time in my life, I felt proud to be a South African.

Brusssels - HowardHoward the tour guide

During one visit to the Election Centre in 1999, I escorted Madiba on a guided tour of the Results Centre in Pretoria. Our short stroll turned into an almost hour-long walk as Mandela stopped to greet and talk to almost everyone in the entire hall. Carried on live television, as the two of us meandered around the Pretoria Showgrounds, I can’t help thinking that this did not make for riveting TV viewing for anyone other than my mother.

RIGHT: It made riveting TV-viewing for his mother, says Howard – who ran the 1999 elections

I would occasionally pop into the Union Buildings at the invitation of Presidential Spokesperson Parks Mankhalana, whom I had taken to Israel as part of the SAUJS/ANC Youth League Study Mission  in 1992.

Parks was always concerned to know what the Jewish community was thinking of Mandela and his presidency. At a presidential dinner for Jacques Chirac, held in Pretoria in 1998, I remember thinking how strange it was for a dancing Madiba to be swamped and mobbed by the local dignitaries while President Chirac went basically ignored.

Mandela, like no one else, understands the importance of symbol. His number six Springbok rugby jersey at the Rugby World Cup will forever represent a pivotal moment when many white South Africans bought into the unity of a new nation. His philosophy of reconciliation, forgiveness and nation-building can probably best be attributed to the enormous influence of Walter Sisulu on his thinking and life.

Madiba joked about Chaskalson’s wedding gift

Mandela though, mixes ideology with humanity, humility and humour. One can only see these traits emerge in small stories about the man rather than in grand gestures, for it is in these moments that his true humanity shines through. Arriving at Jerome and Jacky Chaskalson’s wedding, in the garden of Arthur and Lorraine Chaskalson, Mandela joked with me that my gift would find far better use with him rather than in the pile of presents lying at the door.

One day in 2001, while driving into the Mandela Foundation in Houghton, my car was blocked by the Mandela cavalcade trying to exit the gate. I reversed out of the yard to let them pass and Mandela wound down his window to thank me for this courtesy.

Humour and humility

As Mandela transitioned from the seat of power, he realised that his legacy could best be preserved by his ability to draw resources and publicity to the areas of his greatest concern: children, education, poverty and AIDS.

On his 90th birthday, how can we truly give thanks to the man who saved our nation, who taught us the meaning of humanity and who proved to us that good will always triumph over evil, no matter what the odds?

I believe the Mandela legacy should live in each of us. We as a Jewish community should dedicate ourselves to expunging racism from ourselves and our land, we should strive for human rights for ourselves and for others, and we should never do anything that does not have morality as its driving force.

On this momentous anniversary let us also pay tribute to the Jewish contemporaries of Madiba, who played their part, big and small, in the struggle. Let us use this moment to give thanks to those of our own, too numerous to mention, who paved the way for our freedom in South Africa today.

  • Howard Sackstein is a lawyer, businessman and former anti-apartheid activist with a lengthy record of Jewish communal service. He worked at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) for six years ending as executive director largely responsible for the 1999 general election. He is also a director of the South African Jewish Report

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Couple caught in crossfire of attempted mall robbery

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A young couple attempted to flee the scene of a botched armed robbery at Melrose Arch on Easter Monday, only to get caught in a hail of bullets.

Today, Brandon Regenbaum, 27, lies in hospital in a serious but stable condition under heavy sedation following a five-hour long operation to reconstruct his jaw and repair his mouth. He was shot in the face after robbers hastily fled the upmarket lifestyle mall where they had tried unsuccessfully to rob Elegance Jewellers.

His girlfriend of three years, Lorian Blechman, 25, witnessed the whole scene and luckily escaped unharmed.

The couple, who were due to leave for a holiday in Umhlanga Rocks that day, met for breakfast at Tashas. They left the mall in separate vehicles and found themselves unwittingly in the middle of a gun battle between fleeing suspects and the mall’s security guards.

“The robbers were running towards the Virgin Active Gym. We quickly took a different exit to avoid them, it was scary,” said Blechman.

They beckoned to each other to take an alternative exit near the Daytona shop in a bid to dodge the fleeing suspects. To their horror, they were then confronted by the robbers – who had made it to their escape vehicles – further down the road on Athol/Oaklands Drive in the direction of the N1 highway.

The couple could see the suspects’ vehicles in their review mirrors, so they instinctively swerved out of the way to allow them to speed past. There were loud gunshots, after which Blechman noticed Regenbaum wasn’t driving. She frantically called him to ask why.

He told her, “Babe I love you, but I’ve been shot and I’m going to die.”

Traumatised and still in shock, Blechman told the SA Jewish Report that she jumped out of her car and ran to him.

Speaking from hospital, she said, “There was blood and glass everywhere, and he was in a lot of pain. He told me he was dying. I remember pulling up his hand brake,” she said.

A young Jewish couple walking their baby immediately called Hatzolah, which arrived a few minutes later. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, another witness helped Blechman to make several calls to family. She told Blechman to keep talking to Regenbaum.

“I told Brandon that help was on the way. I told him his mother and brother were coming. I asked him where I could find his Discovery medical card. I told him general things like he was going to be okay, to stay with me, to stay awake. I told him to count how long it would take me in seconds to run to my car 10m away to get my keys,” she said.

Blechman called her father, who was already in Harrismith en route to Umhlanga Rocks where they were supposed to meet later.

Regenbaum’s father, Clifford, was in Plettenberg Bay on holiday when he received the call telling him his son had been shot.

“I was shocked,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

He believes his son was shot by the robbers who may have mistaken him for a security guard in hot pursuit.

“He drives a bakkie with our company name on the side which looks like a security vehicle and even has hazard lights. The robbers had already seen him leaving Melrose Arch, and I think believed him to be a security guard. I honestly believe they tried to kill him,” he said.

“It has been a stressful, worrying time. He will recover, but it will take time. I’m angry at this senseless shooting of innocent people. My son could have died. These robbers have no respect for human life. I don’t know what there is to learn from this.”

Gauteng police spokesperson Kay Makhubele told the SA Jewish Report, “Police are investigating a case of attempted business robbery and attempted murder which occurred at Melrose Arch.

“It is alleged that an unknown number of suspects driving in two cars, an Audi Q7 and a Ford Ranger, were in a shootout with security guards after they were intercepted before the business robbery,” Makhubele said. “A man who was driving his car [Regenbaum] was shot and injured during the incident. Nothing was taken from the shop.”

While doctors have told the family the operation was successful, Regenbaum will have his jaw wired for seven weeks, and won’t be able to talk or eat solid food.

“It will be a long road to recovery,” said Blechman.

“It’s a miracle Brandon survived. It’s also freaky that we were in separate cars. If I had been with him on the passenger side of the car, I might not be here today. I was running late. Brandon needed to fetch his siddur and tefillin to assist my father with a minyan on holiday, as he is saying kaddish for my zaida who passed away last year. I believe my zaida was watching over us,” she said.

Police ask that anyone with information contact 0860 010 111.

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Israeli company turns SA water from toxic to drinkable

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An Israeli company is assisting local government authorities to transform toxic water to healthy drinking water in what could be a game-changer for South Africa as a water-scarce country.

The company, BlueGreen Water Technologies, is a world leader in eradicating toxic algae from water sources, and has offered its expertise to South Africa.

With a branch in South Africa, the company started working at Setumo Dam on the Molopo River in North West province earlier this month. The project is in collaboration with Sedibeng Water, the company overseen by the Department of Water and Sanitation.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Germany where he is currently based, BlueGreen Water Technologies Chief Executive Eyal Harel said, “Toxic algae blooms are like a ‘global pandemic’ of bacteria. They infest bodies of water, and when that population of bacteria explodes, it makes the water toxic. You can’t use that water for drinking or recreation, it depreciates property, it makes that body of water too hostile for other life forms, and it creates health and economic problems.”

The company believes in the value of all people having access to quality drinking water, Harel said, and it’s doing the work in South Africa on humanitarian grounds. “At the Setumo Dam, it’s more like lots of bacteria with a bit of water in between. But half a million people rely on it for drinking water. We came to help get good quality drinking water to these communities.” Local government departments and officials had been “extremely helpful … everyone is working together”, Harel said. “Even in this time of pandemic and reduced budgets, they are doing an excellent job.”

He said the condition of the dam meant it was impossible to treat it from the ground, so they have had to deploy helicopters to distribute product from the air. “This is the first operation of its kind in the world. It’s new for us too, and requires lots of co-ordination with government officials, water boards, and locals.”

The company describes its products as “floating, slow-release formulations of market-approved algaecides designed to prevent the intensification of cyanobacterial toxic blooms in freshwater bodies [also known as ‘blue green algae’]”.

Harel said he was motivated to work with water as “water touches all people, no matter their differences.” With 22 March being ‘World Water Day’, he emphasises that “two billion people around the world only have access to poor quality water. About 99.9% is left untreated, and people think there is nothing they can do. We want to educate decision-makers that this isn’t the case anymore. Lakes can be treated, even much bigger lakes than Setumo Dam. In addition, algae blooms can actually be prevented.”

Harel got married in Cape Town, and was there during the height of the drought in 2018.

“I remember the term ‘Day Zero’, and how frightening it was,” he said, pointing out that drought also contributes to algae blooms because with less water, “pollution concentrates and bacteria grows. It becomes even more toxic, less liquid, and makes the existing problem much worse. That could be the reason Setumo Dam was in such appalling condition.”

The company also assisted Roodepoort Dam, reducing toxic levels of algae in the water two weeks before a rowing competition in March 2020, just before the pandemic hit. However, Harel said Setumo Dam was in much worse shape. “It’s first and foremost a drinking water source,” he said. “It’s in a rural area that borders Botswana, and the communities are about as poor as it gets. So it’s our small way of helping.”

He emphasises that the company is “completely non-political” and is simply trying to reach out to areas where it knows there is an acute problem. It has even reached out to other Middle Eastern countries that aren’t friendly to Israel. “We aren’t here to make a political stand but a humanitarian one, and any human-rights organisation should understand that.

“Part of our agenda is to empower local communities to take responsibility for their local water source. We come as guests,” he says. “In all likelihood, if the dam isn’t maintained, it will go back to the way it was. So, our ultimate goal is to train local communities to be able to assess water conditions. They will be the ‘boots on the ground’ and raise the flag that there is a problem. We work with real-time remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery to assess conditions in the lake, so they will be part of that process.

“We have established good relationships with the government. It sees the problem for what it is, and is taking a long-term approach. We are totally committed to improving water quality in South Africa, and we see the same from government.”

The company’s director of operations in South Africa, Jurgens van Loggerenberg, told the SA Jewish Report that he had worked in water-treatment processes throughout South Africa for the past 20 years.

“Over the past two decades, I’ve seen a decline in the management of infrastructure and water quality. It’s a big problem as it affects people’s lives. So, when I saw BlueGreen’s technology and what it could mean for the improvement of water quality, I was fascinated.” He joined the company soon afterwards.

He believes the technology could “be a game-changer for South Africa. Toxic bacteria means that humans suffer. And it’s never been looked at this way before. Water has been treated only at the treatment facility. I don’t think the team has ever treated water of this poor quality before, but it has a strong strategy. We have the support of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, and the Department of Water and Sanitation. They are standing behind it. They believe in the technology and what it can do for the environment. They know it can help them achieve their goals.

“One thing we observed is that there are so many shops in the area that sell bottled water,” he said. “The day the community can open the tap and have safe drinking water will be a big day for the country.”

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Wits protest an education in activism

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“When I look back to my youth in years to come, I don’t want to have to tell my children I was one of the people who kept to the side and stayed silent. I want to tell them that as a white, Jewish woman in a democratic South Africa, I led.”

So says Gabi Farber, a student activist who, together with other Jewish youth, has committed herself to the fight against financial and academic exclusion at South African universities.

They join a growing movement of university students who in recent weeks embarked on a nationwide protest over tuition fees with demands including the allocation of funding for excluded students and a zero fee increase for the 2021 academic year.

Farber, the legal and policy officer of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), has been integrally involved in the protest.

“We have been on the ground every day,” she told the SA Jewish Report. “Walking through the streets of Braamfontein creating mass awareness about the students’ financial-exclusion crisis.”

Following the shutdown of various campuses, violence has escalated in the past few days, with police responding to demonstrations with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and teargas, and arresting protesting students in Braamfontein. A bystander, Mthokozisi Nthumba, was tragically shot and killed by police last week.

Says Farber, “The first few days were scary. The police were out of control, and you could see they didn’t know what they were doing, shooting rubber bullets directly at people without giving time to disperse. A grenade landed on my foot and burst my eardrums. It was dangerous.

“The media suggests there are hundreds of us and that the protestors are violent. In reality, it’s very calm on the ground, and there aren’t too many of us.”

The police have calmed down in recent days, Farber says, and those responsible for Nthumba’s death were due to attend a hearing on Wednesday, 17 March.

“I couldn’t let [the police brutality] turn me away though,” she says. “There are risks when you’re fighting for change. What’s scarier to me would be doing nothing at a time like this.”

Natanya Porter and Benjamin Atie have also been actively involved.

“On Monday, there were about 50 protestors, and we were chanting and singing peacefully in the street,” recounts Porter, South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) officer at Wits’ education campus. “Suddenly, the police arrived in hippos [armed vehicles] and water-cannon trucks as if there were thousands of us burning down Braamfontein. They used a disproportionate amount of force.”

Beyond active involvement in the protest, Porter and Atie have also been involved in assisting students arrested by police, providing them with snacks and support while they awaited trial last week.

“There was no reason for their arrest,” Porter says. “We believe that the police just grabbed whoever was in a protest t-shirt and who was slowest at running away. In the end, the magistrate dismissed the case.

“As an education student, I believe that it’s a right not a privilege. I don’t think it’s fair for education to be available only to the few who can afford it. I’m heartbroken and shocked at the way the police responded.

“A total of 8 142 Wits University students are financially excluded,” says Atie, SAUJS Wits chairperson. “This means that these students passed last year in spite of all its challenges, but aren’t being allowed to return because they are in debt to the university.

“As Jews, this issue speaks to us because we have always placed a major focus on education and supporting the impoverished. It’s our responsibility to assist these students in whatever way we can.”

Indeed, the role played by the young Jewish activists has raised the profile of the fees issue within the broader Jewish community, says political analyst and former SRC activist Jamie Mighti.

“We have to be cognisant living in South Africa that there are challenges to upward social mobility, including historic poverty and exclusion,” he says. “One of the recognised ways to lift oneself up is through education. The Jewish community is world renowned for prioritising the value of education.

“To see young people like this stand in the gap with other students and use their voices reminds one of the roles played by Jews in fighting apartheid. The Jewish community will look back at this moment and say this was the birth of South African leaders and the re-emergence of Jewish activism within the broader South African conversation.”

Former SAUJS Wits chairperson, Yanir Grindler, stresses that more Jewish students need to get involved. “I’m left with a sense of anger towards the broader Jewish student population,” he says. “It has been so difficult to get them involved. A minority of Jewish students have been there on a consistent basis alongside Gabi protesting with the students. The rest are quite disconnected because they feel it doesn’t really affect them. That’s naïve, because it does.”

Farber, Porter, and Atie agree that more Jewish students need to play their part.

Says Atie, “One of the biggest criticisms we receive at SAUJS is that we come across as a union which cares only about Israel and Jews and not the larger South African community. It’s this perception of Jews that enables anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric to enter the halls of parliament and academic circles of South Africa. Only by involving ourselves in the struggle of the larger South Africa can we begin to change this perspective.”

Many academics agree that the plight of financially excluded students must be addressed.

“There are multiple stories in and around the protests,” says Bonita Meyersfeld, a professor at Wits Law School. “Do I think they’re legitimate? Absolutely. The commercial reality demands a creative and imaginative rethinking, but that’s true of the country as a whole. My experience with the first Fees Must Fall movement showed me that students are desperate.

“Ignoring that pain or painting all protestors with the same brush of judgement and intolerance will never solve the problem.”

Barry Dwolatzky, emeritus professor of engineering at Wits, attests that the contribution each graduate makes far exceeds the cost of educating them. “The debate isn’t between students and university management,” he says. “It’s one between all of us and our government.

“Universities don’t have the resources to solve the problem in the long run. All they can do is apply a band aid here and there in the hope of managing the short-term situation. The future of South Africa depends on how well we support education.”

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