Anti-apartheid activist and former South African president Nelson Mandela — a hero to many Los Angeles Jews, including a large number with ties to that country — died Dec. 5. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate was 95.
“I think the important thing is Mandela’s great gift to the nation of South Africa, which is reconciliation and forgiveness … when push came to shove, he rose to the occasion and became one of the great people of all time,” Selwyn Gerber, a South African accountant based in Century City who was involved with anti-apartheid activities as a college student, said in an interview with the Journal when Mandela was gravely ill earlier this year.
Since December 2012, Mandela had been hospitalized four times for issues related to a pulmonary condition. His most recent hospitalization was in June.
“For me personally, and for all of my South African buddies … we all have a very strong connection and love for this man,” said San Fernando Valley resident Warren Bregman.
Bregman's father, Nathan, was a friend of Mandela — the two worked together as clerks at a Jewish-owned law firm in Johannesburg in the 1940s. It was a first job for both of them, and they became friends after Bregman shared his sandwich with the man who would become South Africa's first black president, during a lunch break.
“He seemed entirely colorblind and became my first white friend,” Mandela wrote of Nathan – known as Nat — in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
Throughout the years, Nathan Bregman and Mandela occasionally saw each other, even after Mandela became president in 1994, and Mandela visited when his friend was hospitalized in 2009, according to Warren Bregman.
“It was one of the things that my dad was most proud of, that he was Nelson Mandela’s first white friend,” he said.
At the time of the South African leader’s hospitalization this past summer, Warren Bregman said there would definitely be tears whenever Mandela died.
Liebe Geft, director of the Los Angeles-based Museum of Tolerance, which has over the years held programs spotlighting Mandela’s efforts, remembered Mandela for his “leadership and courage.”
“His ability to take the country forward was nothing short of astonishing,” Geft, a native of Zimbabwe, said.
Gerber, the Century City accountant, grew up in Sea Point, a Cape Town suburb where on a clear day he and his family could see Robben Island — the island prison where Mandela was being held at that time. Mandela, who was senteneced to life in prison, spent 18 years of his eventual 27-year imprisonment there.
When Gerber was a college student at the University of Cape Town, he said, he was involved with the anti-apartheid movement, protesting against the racial discrimination that had inspired Mandela to become an activist. When Mandela became the first black president of South Africa, in 1994, Gerber was living in the United States.
Gerber said the violence and instability that still plagues the country stands in contrast to the hope that Mandela provided until he retired from public life in 2004.
“It feels disappointing that the legacy he left has been soiled,” Gerber said. “His successors aren’t worthy of his legacy.”