So damaging was the fall-out over South Africa’s denying the Dalai Lama a visa when he wished to attend a peace conference a couple of years ago that it was hard to imagine such a blunder being repeated. At the time, it was perhaps the most egregious example of the last administration’s penchant for shloeping up foreign dictatorships, especially those that had been supportive during the struggle.

Well, bizarrely enough, it’s happened again. This time, the Tibetan spiritual leader has been compelled to call off a planned trip to attend Archbishop Tutu’s 80th birthday celebrations at the weekend. The predictable result is that this country is taking another public-relations beating. Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, executive director of Unisa’s research department, has described the cancellation as a “huge, huge publicity disaster” for South Africa. As for Tutu, he has told the government: “I am warning you like I warned the nationalists that one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government. You are disgraceful.”

Has this country indeed gone backwards since the idealist post-liberation years, or in truth was its foreign policy always determined by its apartheid-era struggle loyalties? This begs the question as to how Nelson Mandela approached the Dalai Lama issue. Did he, too, blackball this revered leader of the Tibetan national cause?

Through my research for a new book I was tasked with writing (recently published under the title Jewish Memories of Mandela), I am able to answer that question, and can happily state that answer to be a resounding “no”. In 1996 Mandela, despite intense pressure from the Chinese, not only allowed the Dalai Lama to visit South Africa, but agreed to meet with him.

Guy Lieberman, a local campaigner for Tibetan national rights, was involved in arranging that meeting. Afterwards, he asked the Dalai Lama what his impressions of Mandela were. As he remembers, it went something like this:

“I often meet with extraordinary and special people, spiritual leaders, royalty, Nobel laureates, presidents, world icons. For the most part, the reputation that precedes these people is somewhat exaggerated, creating an atmosphere of greatness around them. Each time I meet these people, I find that their person is in actuality not as large as their reputation. In preparing to meet with Nelson Mandela, I considered that his reputation was in fact the largest in the world. There is no-one greater living on the planet at this time. And in only his case, did I find the person larger than the reputation.”

Historians always need to be sceptical about people’s reputations, especially when they are politicians. Almost invariably, these end up on closer examination having to be significantly qualified. Human beings, even those who achieve genuine greatness, are flawed. Their behaviour, at the public and even more so at the private level, all too often falls short of the kind of high standards their reputations might lead one to expect of them. As the revered world symbol of the Tibetan independence struggle and one of the few international leaders in any way comparable to Mandela in moral stature, the Dalai Lama’s recognition of the truly extraordinary nature of South Africa’s most famous son is therefore well worth dwelling on.

Having said all that, I hope I will be excused for making the following quick punt for Jewish Memories of Mandela. Brought out by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies and the Umoja Foundation this, in summary, chronicles for the first time the extent to which individual Jewish men and women were involved in Mandela’s life and career. Interwoven into the central narrative are the personal recollections of such individuals (including Tony Leon, Arthur Chaskalson, Helen Suzman, Ali Bacher and Sol Kerzner). These throw much interesting new light on some of the most significant episodes in modern South African history, such as the Treason Trial, the establishment of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Liliesleaf Farm police raid and ensuing Rivonia Trial and the long imprisonment of Mandela and other political activists.

For more info on the book and how to obtain it, see the website of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies:


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


David Saks

David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African...

Leave a comment