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Assabi meets Mandela.JPG

An SABC camera captures Rabbi Ady Assabi greeting Nelson Mandela on his arrival at Temple Shalom.

Mandela’s infamous Temple Shalom speech


hapter 23 of the Mavericks book describes the heated controversy that followed an invitation by Rabbi Ady Assabi of Imanu Shalom to Nelson Mandela to speak from the bimah a few months after his release from prison in 1990.

White South Africa still regarded Mandela as a terrorist “with blood on his hands”, and South African Jews were displeased by the warm embrace that he received from Yasser Arafat during his first trip abroad.

Community leaders who attacked Assabi, claimed that Mandela’s speech had been anti-semitic and anti-Zionist. But none of them attended the event, and Mandela’s actual words were given very little space in the newspapers.

Below is the full text of the speech. (Special thanks to film-maker Sean O’Sullivan for digging it up in an obscure SABC archive.) It shows that Mandela was more nuanced than his critics allowed. At a time when violence in South Africa had sharply escalated and local peace talks were nowhere near starting, the speech is actually a call for ethnically divided nations to come to the negotiating table rather than engage in warfare.


Nelson Mandela speaks at Temple Shalom


Assabi in the shul.JPG

An SABC camera at the back of the hall shows the packed crowd listening to the speech

Ladies and Gentlemen - It is most appropriate to speak to you tonight in the Temple Shalom for it is peace, and how to achieve it in these troubled times, that is uppermost in our hearts and minds. Yes, it is also a privilege to be with you and exchange ideas on how best to eradicate the scourge of the 20th century: racism, racial supremacy and the attendant evils that we have witnessed, whether in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany or the forced removal, resettlements, which uprooted and destroyed the lives of close to 4 million South Africans and ultimately spelt one thing: a genocide.

The experience of the Holocaust cannot be eradicated from the collective conscience of humanity. It holds important lessons for all of us with regard to racial intolerance and the depths to which humankind can sink. Without respect for differences that exist, whether they be differences of colour or religion. In our own country we faced enormous challenges.

The diversity of the people of our country and the ideology of apartheid that has cursed and artificially perpetuated differences for generations places particular responsibility on the shoulders of all peace-loving people. It is imperative that racial barriers be broken down as a matter of urgency: in schools, homes, and communities so that we can build a South Africa free from racial hatred and bigotry.

The rich history and traditions of the South African Jewish community has much to contribute to the process of transformation now under way. Immigration to South Africa took place primarily as a result of persecution, whether this was under Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century or both before and after the Nazi policy of extermination. In our view, this has resulted in a keen awareness in the Jewish community of the evil that is apartheid. Our own persecution means that we readily identify with the Jewish people on the question of racial intolerance. We condemn all forms of racism including any manifestation of antisemitism.

The ANC for quite some time did not have the support of some of the Arab countries because our membership is open to all and we have worked and continue to work with organisations who have Jews in their organisations. We have consistently refused to tailor our policies to such expediencies but have maintained a firm commitment to our non-racial policies which are the hallmark of our organisation.

What stage is our struggle at right now? We are on the very threshold of freedom. This moment holds great possibilities but also very real dangers on the eve of real negotiation. Forces determined to wreck the peace process have implemented a strategy of destabilisation which has resulted in the very real and terrifying prospect of full-scale civil war breaking out. There is no doubt in my mind, and all the evidence conclusively support this that police and sectors of the government are working with a variety of vigilante forces including Inkatha.

An offensive unprecedented in ferocity has been launched against our people: ordinary civilians: at home, at work and in the streets are made targets of brutal and savage attacks. Eye-witnesses from many townships state unequivocally that their attackers include Whites with their faces and hands blacked up. This is not a new phenomenon in Southern Africa. It has been an integral part of the destabilisation policy perpetrated against Angola and Mozambique. What we are now asking is how the skills, resources and ideas can be harnessed to serve the South African nation in the making.

I know that the South African Jewish community has a very close affinity with the State of Israel. Many questions are raised about the policy of the African National Congress to the State of Israel as well as our close relations with the people of Palestine, including the PLO.

 I will try to address some of these questions tonight and afterwards answer any questions that you may have. Many statements attributed to me have appeared in the world media. I wish only to state that such reports should not be taken as accurate and efforts should be made to find out what was actually said, rather than what has been reported.

If Zionism, and I ask you to listen carefully, if Zionism means the right of Israel to seize territory and deny the Palestinian people their right of self-determination and suppress by brute force their right to self-expression, then we condemn Zionism in the strongest terms. But if Zionism means the right of the Jewish people to live in secure boundaries, to have their own State, to contribute to world peace and peace in the region: to live in a manner that affords them the right to fully express their culture, traditions and religion, then we consider Zionism a healthy movement. This is indeed what we understand Zionism to be.

It must be understood also that the enemies of Israel are not our enemies. Our stand on the question of relations between Israel and the PLO is that it is a matter which must be settled by peaceful methods, as is the view of the world community. The fact that the United Nations General, the United Nations General Assembly has on two occasions had to move to Geneva to hear Yasser Arafat speak is indicative of the support that the PLO has in the world. Furthermore, by refusing to speak to the PLO the Israeli government is isolating itself. It is our firm belief that peace in the Middle East depends on the people of Palestine and the people of Israel coming to accept each other, each other’s right of existence, the people of Palestine also have the right to nationhood in the land of their birth.

Our shared experiences with the PLO of racial intolerance, forced removal, demolition of homes, detention, torture and repeated massacres of course result in firm bonds of friendship. It is our task as leaders in our respect countries to make every effort to bridge the chasm that exists between Jew and Christian, between Christian and Moslem, between Black and While. 

We must strive to end this enmity between people based on colour, religion and race. This is not peculiar to the Middle East. Right here in South Africa we have people of every religious persuasion, of every colour: people whose origins can be traced to virtually every part of the globe. It is our duty to preach and practise tolerance and real democracy to ensure that the South Africa of the future is a land safe for the generation to come.

We hope that the Jewish community looks to South Africa as their home, their future, a country to which they belong, as a right. We believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it: Black and White, irrespective of race, colour or creed. We have every confidence that individuals and as a community you will play a very meaningful role in building the democratic South Africa so many have given so much to achieve. Thank you very much

I am told by Rabbi Assabi that I am not allowed to take questions. I am very sorry for that because my work here we would have had the wonderful occasion to clear any doubts that you have. Perhaps we can go outside and do so there instead.

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