27th April 1994 and the long awaited first free elections of the newly democratic South Africa. One of the polling booths was in the Green & Sea Point Synagogue Hall. The queues of potential voters stretched for blocks – black and white together, standing patiently and excitedly – for many it was the first time they had ever been able to vote.

After an hour in the queue, the Shul’s newly elected vice president, Dr Harry Buchinsky,[i] lost patience and decided to return later but a very pale shaken looking electoral officer emerged shouting “Is there a doctor here?” Dr Buchinsky ran inside to see a motionless body lying on the floor. The excitement had proved too much for him. There was no pulse and no apparent breathing. Dr Buchinsky grabbed a man busy connecting telephone lines for the voting process and showed him how to lock his hands together and apply pressure to the lower end of the sternum while counting 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, pause. At the top end Dr Buchinsky applied mouth to mouth ventilation and miracle of miracles, the man started breathing again. The paramedics arrived, connected his IV line and transported him to hospital. He turned out to be a well-known member of the congregation. A few days later, discharged from hospital, he came to visit Dr Buchinsky with his two daughters and a generous cheque for the shul.

Dr Buchinsky was sad to read in the papers the following week that the man had passed away and phoned the family. On the contrary, the family said, he had ten wonderful extra days before he died. On the previous Shabbat evening the whole family were together at the table, after which he played chess with his grandson and shared with them many previously untold stories about his life in der heim.

On 10th May 1994 Nelson Mandela was elected president. The day before, 9th May, South African President-elect Nelson Mandela visited the Marais Road Shul on Shabbat.

President elect Nelson Mandela visits G&SPHC

What an amazing and exciting Shabbat the weekend of 6th and 7th May was for the congregation, the Shul and for me”, wrote shul president Joe Sapire.[ii]

On Friday night the new Committee was inaugurated. Chief Rabbi Harris honoured us with his presence and, at the invitation of our dear Rabbi Steinhorn, he presided at the inauguration and delivered the sermon - a great sermon for a great occasion. Then, after the service on Shabbat, the President-designate of the new South Africa visited our Shul to honour our South African Jewry in general and of course our congregation and Shul in particular. What an honour for us all. What an auspicious occasion for our congregation and for the Jews of South Africa for history to record.”

Mandela, a truly exceptional human being and a true mensch, decided to show that he embraced religious diversity by visiting a mosque for Friday prayers, a synagogue for Saturday prayers and a Hindu temple and a church for Sunday prayers. It was arranged that the shul service would start at 9 a.m. and when it finished, Mandela would arrive and speak from the bimah. Before he went into shul Mandela went into the kitchen to thank the overwhelmed workers. Passing a member on the steps, he extended his hand - she burst into tears.

Mandela visits Cape Town shul and reassures Jews on their future | The  Times of Israel

Rabbi Steinhorn, Chief Rabbi Harris, President elect Nelson Mandela, National SAJBD president Mervyn Smith.

The Shul printed Mervyn Smith’s thanks to President-Elect Mandela in their Rosh Hashana Bulletin[iii].

I take this opportunity as Chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and on behalf of the entire Jewish community of South Africa to extend my congratulations to you on your imminent election as the President of South Africa. The Jewish community of this country is committed to playing a full role in supporting you and the elected Government in establishing a non-racist, non-sexist democratic South Africa. Your life has been dedicated to these principles and we have every faith in your ability to lead our country along the path in the years ahead. The good spirit in which South Africans went to the polls and accepted its outcome has given rise to a great feeling of optimism for the future of our country. The determination of South Africans from all walks of life, to make the transition work was never more manifest than in the last week and we hope and pray that this spirit will be maintained in the future.

In his 1993 Rosh Hashana message to the community, Rabbi Steinhorn[iv] used the same words that president Joe Sapire had used in 1990. He thought Mandela’s visit and the whole chain of events miraculous. For decades fearful people had predicted a violent and bloody end to apartheid, yet, to the surprise of all the armchair soothsayers, South Africa had gone through a peaceful transition that was a marvel and a model to the whole world, culminating in Nobel Peace Prizes being awarded to Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk that year. To Rabbi Steinhorn the events of the last year were to say the very least, in the order of the miraculous. In peace they had witnessed the birth of a new democratic South Africa and their congregation had the great privilege of welcoming the new President of the Republic, Nelson Mandela, to their Sabbath Service after his election.

This is how the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the international Jewish paper, reported the momentous occasion.

Mandela visits Cape Town Shul and reassures Jews on their future

JOHANNESBURG (May. 9, 1994) — The largest synagogue in the Southern hemisphere — Cape Town’s Green & Sea Point Hebrew Congregation — was packed to capacity last Saturday to welcome South African President-elect Nelson Mandela to a Shabbat service there. As Mandela addressed the congregation on the first Saturday after his election, cheering crowds of all races lined the street outside. And inside, some members of the congregation were sporting yarmulkes in the black, green and gold colors of the newly empowered African National Congress.

The congregants heard Mandela make an appeal from the pulpit for Jewish expatriates to return to South Africa. Pointedly excluding aliyah by saying he understands the Jewish community’s commitment to Israel, Mandela said: “We want those who left (for other countries) because of insecurity to come back and to help us to build our country.” He added that those who do not return should contribute their money and skills to South Africa.

Mandela thanked the Jewish community for its contribution toward the development of South Africa and assured Jews they have nothing to fear from a government of national unity. He said he felt an affinity with the Jewish community, since it was a Jewish firm that gave him an apprenticeship in the early days of his law career, when discrimination was rife. He also said that he had befriended his Jewish defence counsel during the treason trial which led to his imprisonment in the 1950s and he was still in contact with the lawyer.

He stated that he recognizes the right to existence of the State of Israel, along with the right of Palestinians to live in their own homeland. He noted that he considered it significant that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat last week signed an agreement in Cairo implementing Palestinian self-rule — the same week that South Africa elected its new leadership.

At the reception following the service, some of the younger members of the congregation raised clenched fists in solidarity with the ANC, while the shul choir led in the singing of the country’s new national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.”

Mandela later addressed the media from the steps of the synagogue, where he was flanked by Israeli Ambassador Alon Liel; South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris; the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Jack Steinhorn; and the national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Mervyn Smith.

Mandela said that the prophets of doom, who had predicted widespread anarchy should an ANC government come to power, have been proved wrong. Mandela also stated that the empowerment of the country’s black, coloured and Indian population will not be at the expense of the white community.

An elated Smith, who later described the morning’s events to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency as “a high point” and “a peak in Jewry’s relationship with the new South Africa,” pledged the Jewish community’s support to Mandela. “The Jewish community of this country is committed to playing a full role in supporting you and the elected government in establishing a non-racist, non-sexist, democratic South Africa,” said Smith, addressing Mandela. “The determination of South Africans from all walks of life to make the transition work was never more manifest than in the last week,” Smith said.

The Board of Deputies and the Green & Sea Point Hebrew Congregation each made a presentation to Mandela “as a token of respect and admiration on his election as a first State President of a new democratic South Africa.”

Nelson Mandela, Mervyn Smith, Chief Rabbi  Harris and a very young man

Nelson Mandela, Mervyn Smith, Chief Rabbi Harris and a very young man

In his New Year message Chief Rabbi CK Harris[v] also dwelt on “the stunning events of this past year, which, with the help of Heaven, has thankfully turned out much better than expected.” He was concerned about whether their religious rights would be protected in the New South Africa and was putting together a Declaration of Religious Rights and Responsibilities which was consulted in the drawing up of the new Constitution.[vi] In another article[vii] he calmed any concerns about possible restrictions on their rights to practice their religion as a Jewish minority within a white minority. He reported that although there were crucial disagreements in many areas in drafting bills of fundamental rights, everyone was unanimously in full agreement on the necessity of safeguarding religious rights. That meant schechita and all aspects of Kashrut would be protected, Jewish day schools would continue, schools formerly with a Christological bias would be open to all and all facilities for synagogual rights would be maintained.

The 1995 Rosh Hashana annual[viii] carried a message from President Mandela recalling with warmth the wonderful reception he received from the G&SPHC as well as a message from Chief Rabbi Harris referring to his visit to an under-resourced East Rand school.[ix] On the way home, he discussed how they could try to be of some help in the situation. The Jewish community, he said, needed to adapt to the changes in South Africa by participating wholeheartedly in the developments taking place in the country. Amidst such enormous deprivation and poverty, it was the morally correct thing to do. Out of that was born Tikkun, later called Afrika Tikkun, which he developed with Dr Bertie Lubner and Herbie Rosenberg to play a meaningful role in the transformation and reconciliation of this nation, focusing on children, later becoming an organisation, with President Nelson Mandela as its Patron-in-Chief. Mandela described it as a ‘miracle’ - "I never expected organisations of this nature, which have brought hope to the disadvantaged".


Chief Rabbi and Mrs Harris visit the shipping container hosting the first Afrika Tikkun nursery school in Diepsloot

Chief Rabbi and Mrs Harris visit the shipping container hosting the first Afrika Tikkun nursery school in Diepsloot

As during apartheid, there were still some committee members who felt anxious about their rabbis speaking out on tendentious issues and in Rabbi Steinhorn they had someone who spoke his mind. One committee member asked him to curtail his sermons of a tenuous nature such as sermons on Winnie Mandela who had just been expelled from the Government for her persistent attacks and insubordination. Rabbi Steinhorn agreed to apologise from the pulpit for his Winnie Mandela remarks. Another asked him not to give sermons longer than twelve minutes, others felt the pulpit should be open for discussion and the rabbi should not be limited in his choice of topic and they concluded by sending Rabbi Steinhorn a letter of appreciation for his excellent work.

[i] Buchinsky, Dr Harry, “Not Quite the usual day in the life of a Gabbai”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 70th Anniversary, 5765, 17


[ii] Sapire, Joe, “President’s message: an exciting term ahead”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1993 – 5753, 9


[iii] Smith; Mervyn, “Thank you to President Mandela”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1993 – 5753, 19


[iv] Steinhorn, Rabbi Dr E J, “Rosh Hashana message”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1993 – 5753,7


[v] Harris Chief Rabbi CK, “New year message”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual,1993 – 5753, 4


[vi] Sifrin, Geoff, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris: How Humanity, morality and humour helped lead a community, The Chief Rabbi CK Harris Memorial Foundation, Sandringham, Johannesburg, 2015,122


[vii] G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual 60th Anniversary, 1993-5754, p 51


[viii] G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1995 – 5756


[ix] There were three overcrowded classrooms with children sitting three to a two-seater-desk, using beer bottle tops to learn arithmetic. Holes in the roof let in the rain. There was no door –a piece of hardboard which doubled as a blackboard served the purpose. There were no toilets, so the children had to squat in the overgrown grass. Yet the children seemed happy – they had a school to go to, they were learning and they sang them songs with great gusto. Sifrin, Geoff, Chief Rabbi Harris… op cit, 156