Wendy Kahn

Our Madiba Moment of Reconciliation

On Mandela Day last week, sandwiches were made and handed out, blankets knitted and distributed and speeches given by impressive and inspiring world leaders. It is fitting then, that, on that auspicious day, I experienced what I believe was a profound ‘Mandela moment’, one that exemplified the Madiba values and spirit.

Following some highly abusive and antisemitic commented posted on a Whatsapp group last month, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), together with the 16 year-old administrator of the group, laid criminal charges against two young men responsible. Soon after, the offenders approached us to with an apology. 

It was agreed that we (the SAJBD and the learner) would meet with them on 18 July to discuss a way forward.  I was privileged to be a part of this very meaningful process.

The two young men and their fathers expressed true remorse and regret for the hateful words that were posted on that site.  There was no attempt at justification on their part, no wish to abdicate responsibility, just a full and unequivocal expression of contrition. After the official apologies, each of them spontaneously and with clear sincerity offered personal apologies. 

Many people voiced concern at the SAJBD readiness to accept the apology. Some suggested that we had too readily allowed the offenders “off the hook”. They also questioned the genuine nature of the apology, wondering whether the young men were simply avoiding having to answer in court for their actions.

In my responses I try to convey the emotion and remorse expressed by the offenders and their families, who accompanied them for support.  They could have simply handed over their formal written apologies and been on their way. But they didn’t. They shared with us some very personal experiences and went beyond the formalities expressing their regret at these posts. This was not an easy process for all present, but it was truly moving.

The young learner on whose Whatsapp group the antisemitic comments were made was also deeply affected by the apologies.  They were not the mean people he expected them to be.  Rather, he realised, that they were youngsters just like him. No longer were they hiding behind the anonymity of their cellphones. Rather, they were sharing some painful and difficult issues and most importantly, they were able to connect and break down the stereotypes. 

For the SAJBD, dealing with antisemitic incidents is never in the first instance about simple retribution. Rather, we try and change attitudes and explain why the behaviour is so hurtful and potentially dangerous.  In this regard the two young men will be attending a sensitivity programme at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, where they will be exposed to the understanding that the Holocaust and how it came about.  It did not start with killing, but with words.

As we all know, apologising is never easy. It should never be underestimated how hard it can be to take responsibility for your actions and to face those you might have harmed. It is even harder in that this matter is so public. The animosity that regrettably exists between sections of the Jewish and Muslim communities complicates the situation even further. 

Sadly, in the majority of the cases that the SAJBD is currently pursuing, the perpetrators vehemently refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing on their part, leaving us with no choice but to proceed with extended litigation. Cosatu International Relations spokesperson Bongani Masuku, who threatened SA Jews in February 2009, was found guilty of hate speech first by the SA Human Rights Commission and then in the Johannesburg High Court’s Equality Court last year. Eight years later, still resolute in his refusal to apologise to the Jewish community he will now be taking the judgement to the Appeal Court. Similarly, former ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman has refused to apologise for a series of inflammatory and insulting comments made in 2013, snubbing the SA Human Rights Commission’s attempts to mediate the issue. We expect the final SAHRC ruling shortly. In July 2014 Tony Ehrenreich, Cosatu’s then Western Cape chairman, posted comments calling for “eye for an eye” retaliation against the Jewish leadership whenever a Palestinian woman or child was killed in Gaza. He too has stubbornly refused to express any form of regret for what amounted to incitement to kill fellow South Africans.

These are the genuine, implacable haters that we will meet up with in court, however long it might take.   

And that is why, we were happy to accept the apology of the two young men, who approached us in a spirit of true contrition and readiness not acknowledge that they had done wrong. For all of us present, it was indeed a ‘Mandela moment’, a moment when an encounter born in anger and outrage turned into an opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation.

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The SAJBD was heartened by an email we received from Mr Solly Hattia, a member of the Muslim community.

“My experiences living amongst a Jewish community.  My first engagement with Jewish people began when the company I worked for merged with a Jewish family-owned-business and to whom I was then to report to as my new CEO.  My first encounter with my new Boss, Ronnie Norwitz, was on a Friday when he came down to my office at around 12 looked at his watch and said “Solly aren't you going to be late for your Friday prayer?”  Never before in all my years of working, had I ever had this courtesy from a boss!  His other interesting comment on my return from the Mosque was all ways, "Friday's are good days ".  Ronnie would always say this with the gesture of a clenched fist swinging his arm through the air as if he was going to hit someone.  He always greeted me with a smile and a kind word.  Braai days at work you would find him at my fire naturally. 


At the biennial conference of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies Gauteng Council next week, Gauteng Jewry will have the first opportunity of engaging directly with President Ramaphosa since his assumption of the presidency earlier this year. Rather than delivering the traditional keynote address, Mr Ramaphosa will be exchanging views with eminent business leader Stephen Koseff on challenges currently facing South Africa, what the Jewish community is (or could be) doing to help address them and how each sees the future of the country and its people. In other words, it is not about what this country should be doing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian, or any other foreign policy issue, but is framed as being a South African conversation between fellow South Africans on South African issues.