IN South Africa’s current political climate, dominated by corrupt politicians’ bluster, unseemly scuffles in Parliament and mobs burning schools and artworks, among other things, it is refreshing to find spots of quietness and integrity behind the public din.
A funeral of a 98-year old man might seem an unlikely place, but such was last Sunday’s event at West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg of advocate, activist and Jewish leader Jules Browde, infused with his optimistic wordview and enduring sense of humour. Sad as a good man’s passing is, the feeling was of a life well lived.
The warm friendship during apartheid’s early years between Browde and Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela was the start of a long, meaningful relationship. This took place before Tambo’s exile from the country to lead the ANC, and Mandela’s imprisonment for 27 years which interrupted the friendship – it resumed after his release in 1990.
Browde and Mandela had studied law together, and in the 1950s he was the legal counsel for Tambo in his application for admission as an attorney, despite the racial laws. Later, he acted for the legal practice of Mandela and Tambo – successfully – when the apartheid government attempted to evict them from their offices because they were in “white” Johannesburg.
“Today everyone likes to say they knew Mandela, but at that time, to be a friend of Mandela was not popular in white society,” said the rabbi to the mourners who included constitutional court judges, legal figures, artists, activists, and leaders of the left-wing Zionist youth movement Habonim – he was its national president for 25 years.
The brutal application of racial laws by the apartheid regime, including imprisonment without trial, torture, evictions and other means, led Browde and other jurists to establish Lawyers for Human Rights in 1980, which publicised human rights abuses and confronted them through litigation. He was its chairman during the State of Emergency in the mid-80s. After democracy, President Mandela appointed him to investigate irregularities in the appointment of public officials.
A notable figure at the funeral was Johannesburg’s mayor Parks Tau – a member of the ANC ruling party – with an honour guard of black men and women in city uniforms to accompany the coffin to the grave. The rabbi noted with a smile that officially, Browde was still a city employee, evoking a warm nod from Tau. He did not believe in retirement, and still had several months to complete his contract.
Touching obliquely on the corruption issue – the hottest topic in public discourse today – Tau stressed the importance he placed on probity among city officials and Browde’s role in its integrity committee, in which he engaged with over 200 councillors to ensure their financial affairs complied with transparency regulations.
The city had offered him his first five-year contract when he was in his late 80s, despite his wry, humorous warning that because of his age he might not be there to complete it. But he saw it through, and was offered additional five-year contracts.
In a moving scene after completion of the formal Jewish ceremony, the city guard took up shovels and filled the grave with earth – a rare glimpse into a potential South Africa where colour didn’t matter.
The serenity of a worthy life completed, with no need of fanfare. There were no political speeches, cries of “Amandla!” or earnest political party representatives with the red overalls of the EFF, the blue T-shirts of the DA, the red, green and black symbols of the ANC, or others. No jostling for prominence.
Several women participated in shovelling earth onto his coffin during the ceremony. Although contrary to the Orthodox Jewish community’s custom of calling only on men to do this, it seemed entirely natural – and the rabbis did not stir. And when it came to the family saying kaddish at the end, his wife of 68 years, Selma, also participated with her sons. Again, this seemed entirely natural, though it was not the usual custom for women to do it. But for Browde, no-one would be excluded.
The generation of Jewish men who were born in the early part of the twentieth century – like Browde – were moulded by major events such as the Second World War against Hitler in which he fought for five and a half years in the South African artillery; the flourishing and expansion of South African Jewry; life under apartheid and the choice of whether and how to resist it; and the idealism for building a new, humane state of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Some of them, like Browde, became allies of giants like Mandela and Tambo.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which was intended to heal wounds of apartheid by giving victims and perpetrators of atrocities the chance to face each other and tell their stories.
But reconciliation has fallen far short of its goal. The country stands at a dangerous crossroad – will it continue descending into violence, corruption and cynicism, or regain the idealism of Mandela’s rainbow nation?
Most of Browde’s peers – the visionaries and activists – have passed on. Who will replace them to help this confused, increasingly cynical country find its way?
(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)