Recently I spent a week in South Africa, helping a Jewish day school there develop a long-range strategic plan in the face of falling population and other challenges. This was my first trip to South Africa. I grew up knowing South Africa as the embodiment of oppression, as a state founded on an ideology that seemed to be a continuation of that of Nazi Germany, with state terror taken for granted. South Africa was always part of my consciousness as a place that symbolized injustice and cruelty. Then, eight years ago, South Africa quietly, without violence, became a democracy, and the entire apparatus of apartheid was dismantled. And with that, South Africa sort of disappeared from the map: no longer a place that made headlines, no longer a symbol of evil, it dropped from my consciousness. Of course, I was vaguely aware of the reports of terrible crime, of the continuing economic inequalities, of the AIDS pandemic. But these were just part of the background noise of problems in the world.
Then, suddenly, improbably, there I was, having flown eight hours due south, crossing through two seasons but no time zones, in a land that, except for driving on the wrong side of the road, feels more like North America than like England or Europe. Perhaps this is because of the wide open spaces and the relative newness of the buildings (no medieval castles). I caught glimpses of the fabled beauty of the land, though most of my time was spent in meetings and no time was allotted in my schedule for sightseeing. While my travel was limited, I could not avoid awareness of the huge gap between the middle class and the very poor, the children begging at traffic lights in nice neighborhoods, the vast shanty-towns, called informal settlements, on the outskirts of the cities. While South Africa is by no means in a state of disintegration like its neighbor Zimbabwe, it certainly faces challenges that are daunting, to say the least. It may be a rainbow democracy, but racism has not been eliminated by an election, and the whites response to affirmative action has not been overwhelming support and understanding, to say the least - which explains in large part the continuing diminution of the Jewish population.
Nevertheless, there was something very moving about the realization that for all its problems, South Africa really did make a non-violent transition from an openly racist state to a multicultural democracy; given what we know about the history of the past few centuries, that is rather incredible. For me, the dissonance between my mental image of the old South Africa, and my impressions walking the streets of the new South Africa, filled me with a kind of lightness, an irrational feeling of optimism.
When I shared my impressions with a friend here in Israel upon my return, waxing eloquent about South Africas non-violent transition, she commented, Ah, so there may be hope for us here after all! But then I went on to relate that everyone I spoke to there said that the one key factor that made this miracle possible was the statesmanlike leadership and personal charisma of Nelson Mandela, to which my friends comment was, Ah, so there is no hope for us here after all. Certainly one of the most depressing aspects of our situation here is the lack of any leader, on any side, anywhere on the horizon, who speaks with any moral authority, who speaks for the common good of all; so we are left to wallow helplessly in our mutual victimhood.
My hosts presented me upon departure with a book on the Truth and Reconciliaton Commission, that has been an important if controversial factor in the process of trying to heal South Africa. Reading it on the plane, I came across a sentence that seemed as if it had been written for us here, explaining the mismatch between Jewish and Arab understandings of coexistence within Israel; it has been echoing in my head ever since: Reconciliation without restorative justice is merely a salve for the consciences of the privileged.