A Better Man


Last week, President Obama bestowed on the late Nelson Mandela what is probably one of the biggest compliments a leader, or any other person for that matter, could hope to get during or after his lifetime: “he makes me want to be a better man” the American president  said (Mirror, 10 December).

It was a great speech, one of Obama’s best, if only for the fact that it strengthened the realization that on Saturday, South Africa buried one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. Once a terrorist and a participant in violent demonstrations, sentenced for life and a freedom fighter who sat in jail for 27 years – Mandela became a symbol of the struggle against the apartheid regime and brought upon its end, and all this in the spirit of national appeasement, equal rights and unity. Watching the wide coverage on Mandela, I could only lament the fact that the world today sees fewer and fewer leaders of the same caliber. Like a child wanting a toy, I wondered what Israel would look like if it had a Mandela of its own.

But the truth is that Israel does not need a Mandela, but a Frederik de Klerk- Mandela’s predecessor as South Africa’s last white president in the years 1989-1994. De Klerk was the man responsible for ending the apartheid regime and turning South Africa into a democracy with equal right to all races, a fact not mentioned in the various ceremonies marking Mandela’s passing.

De Klerk’s greatness lies in the fact that he understood what his peers did not, and that was that the racist apartheid regime had come to an end and that the black majority had to be incorporated into the process of ruling South Africa. Facing the South African parliament in February 1990, he bravely announced the failure of the apartheid regime, legitimized the activity of parties defined as illegal, released political prisoners, and cancelled the death penalty. A week later, he released Nelson Mandela from prison. (The Independent, 15 December).

It was Ke-Clerk who cancelled the discriminating race laws in practice in South Africa then, including laws limiting land ownership, housing area, and racial classification. These reforms were planned and executed despite intense internal objections from within his own party that eventually led to a rebel splinter group consisting of those who could not accept the changes.

And so it seems that Israel is not in need of a Mandela right now. With all the respect and adoration deserved by the first black president of South Africa, nothing of real importance could have taken place without a person like De Klerk in place – someone who correctly assessed the current reality, and who had the vision and boldness to reshape it.

But for this, you need a pragmatist, someone brave with a vision and a political backbone, and not someone who is afraid of the government he put in place, his own party, and his beloved wife. Someone who realizes that at some point in history – mountains need to be moved, and accepted norms reshaped. A leader who can be said to have “made me want to be a better man”.


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