Wendy Kahn

Etched in our Collective Memory



Jewish Life

June the 16th stands out in our psyche and hearts as an historical milestone. It was a day that changed our country and each one of its citizens forever. Just as Americans remember where they were when JFK was assassinated, or when the planes hit the World Trade Centre, so do South Africans remember vividly the day that the horrific brutality of the Apartheid force came down on protesting schoolchildren. The image of the dying Hector Pieterson, one of the most iconic photographs of our generation, was etched in our minds forever.

Exactly 40 years later, two memorials were erected in Soweto to remember two of the tragic casualties of that time: protesting learner Hastings Ndlovu, after whom a street was named, and social welfare officer Dr Melville Edelstein. These memorials will ensure that their legacies will continue and that, to quote the Executive Mayor of Johannesburg, “they will live on in our hearts”.

Edelstein was dedicated to the Soweto community. For 18 years, he worked for the Western Areas Bantu Administration dealing with welfare issues, primarily helping young people and the disabled find adequate education and employment. Edelstein had warned in his 1971 MA dissertation on the attitudes of Soweto youth towards the Apartheid government that violence was likely to occur if oppressive laws against black South Africans were not reviewed and revoked. He asserted that state schools might well be the tipping point between feelings of resentment and acts of outright defiance.

History shows that Edelstein’s earnest warnings were disregarded and that when the anger he had warned against erupted in violent protests on 16 June 1976, he was one of the first to lose his life. The bitter irony of it all was that his death came at the hands of young black protestors, who in their fury saw not someone who had genuinely dedicated himself to promoting their welfare, but simply as a white man and, therefore, the enemy.

Executive Mayor Parks Tau described Edelstein as a “peace-loving man who dedicated his life to the service of the poor on the then dusty township streets of South Africa”. He quoted the photographer Peter Magubane who, on finding Edelstein’s lifeless body, had said, “If they had known who he was this never would have happened. He was part of the community.” Mayor Tau further observed that “it was the Apartheid system that socialised people to falsely judge people according to the colour of their skins”.

Edelstein’s daughter, Janet Goldblatt, shared a moving message sent to her by Thandi Ndlovu, sister of the late Hastings: “Forty years ago your loved one left home to do what he loved most – to serve the people of Soweto. What transpired that day has left a big hole in your individual and [our] collective hearts. As you make the painful journey to the spot where he met his painful death I can only say to you Melville Edelstein’s memory is starting to be engraved in my heart and in the heart of millions of my fellow Sowetans”. And on that day in Soweto we engraved the legacies of several of the precious lives we lost on June 16. Just as Melville Edelstein will be etched in the hearts of the people of Soweto, so will the memory of learner Hastings Ndlovu. As South Africans, our hearts are filled with engravings and memories of so much suffering and loss. But that is not how that day ended.

After the memorial plaque was unveiled by the Edelstein family, Minister Radebe, and Premier Makhura, young Levi Rosenthal prepared to read his bar mitzvah portion at the memorial site where forty years earlier his grandfather had lost his life. As his aunt Janet said in her speech, “We are here to celebrate the memory of my father, but also to celebrate life and the bar mitzvah of Levi”.

Members of the Jewish community, including several rabbis and the prefects from King David and Yeshiva College, donned tefillin and talleisim to daven shacharit at the site of the dedication ceremony. The songs of prayer brought a sense of celebration to this Youth Day event, as Levi marked his religious coming of age before the memorial to his remarkable grandfather.

Download the article here.

Recent Articles

A day in THE LIFE. Getting down to business with the SA Jewish Board of Deputies

When my children were in primary school, they had no idea what their Mum did as a job.  I didn’t fit in the mould as a doctor, lawyer, speech therapist or teacher.  When it came to careers’ day in grade 2 they asked me to come in and talk to the kids but my talk was met with blank stares.  I never handed out surgical masks or Nandos burgers. I was just a lady with a complicated story. 

The reality of Israel APARTHEID WEEK. Exposing the anti-Semitism of the BDS

I have no illusions about `Israel Apartheid Week’ (IAW) being an antisemitic hatefest with BDS and their cohorts dressing up as human rights activists and using this platform to spew hatred against SA Jewry.

What struck us this year was how hard the BDS folk tried to convince the public that IAW wasn’t antisemitic. It was definitely a case of `the lady protesteth too much’.  One of the opeds on this theme, which appeared in the Sunday Tribune on the eve of IAW, was by SA Jews for a Free Palestine activist Sheila Barsel, who dogmatically dismissed our claims of antisemitism as being not `accurate’. 

Lessons we can learn from the Holocaust

It is remarkable that, seventy two years after the Holocaust, a seemingly never-ending amount of new material on the tragedy continues to emerge.  Surely by this time, the history of this period, should have already been told.  Yet, on an almost daily basis, new stories are coming to light and fresh research (thanks in large part to the recent opening of Eastern European archives) is being undertaken.  New books are being written, while educators are constantly looking for ways to ensure the Holocaust is never forgotten.