Rachel’s Story

Malcolm Fraser lived and worked his work, then he died. His political career and mine started around the same time: he became leader of his party and I became a voter. I enjoyed voting against Fraser and I enjoyed disliking him. At the time I barracked hard for the brilliant Whitlam. By contrast I found Fraser dour, unimaginative and colourless. But from the first moments following the Dismissal I liked Gough less; the oratory which had always sparkled now became tarnished with absurd hyperbole: expressions such as “Maintain the rage”; “Kerr’s Cur” and so on. In time I discovered no-one could adore Gough as much as he loved himself, while Malcolm seemed to grant himself no more regard than we did in the electorate.
Decades passed, we lost the war in Vietnam, and the refugees whom Gough rejected (he judged they’d all vote for the conservatives) were succoured in their tens of thousands by that cold man, Malcolm Fraser. We buried Fraser last week and those refugees took out a full-page advertisement to express their sorrow and their regard for that colourless man. The page teemed with Vietnamese-Australian organisations, marshalled on the page, pouring out thanks and regret in a poignant
effusion. 
Around the same time I received the following from one who is a friend of the friendless in this country:

The following is an abridged version of Rachel’s story, reproduced here with the writer’s consent. Rachel a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was resettled in Adelaide seven years ago (taken from Faces of the Refugee Story: Portraits and Stories of 15 people who now call Adelaide home):

“I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but when I was about 1 years old the First Congo War broke out and we fled and we went to our first refugee camp in Nakabande and then from that camp we returned back home again to Congo. The Second Congo War broke out and I was almost 2 years old. My family fled again and when we fled this time we knew it was something that was going to be permanent – we wouldn’t be returning back – and it’s a very long journey from Congo to wherever we are going because we didn’t know where we are going. We found ourselves on the border of Congo and Uganda but we didn’t know who was going to be waiting – it could be the rebels to kill us or it could be someone to help us. 
Luckily the UNHCR were there and we were rescued by them and they took us into another refugee camp in Uganda…from there it got too crowded – too many people coming in – and so they had to move us to another camp. We were given cooking oil, beans, flour and we settled there. The UNHCR gave us tents and eventually land to start our new life there and we were able to build our own houses.

In 2002 we were attacked by rebels in that camp. We did have protection but…it was quite a walk from where we were to them. It was a military base where they had soldiers and they were supposed to protect us but because they were so far away from us the rebels came from the other side, not the side that they were on, so they were not aware of us being attacked until some of the men …went to tell them that we had been attacked.

They had taken my Dad. Because our house was the first on our Block (like a suburb) and the place around us hadn’t been cleared of heavily grown bushes we didn’t hear anything. About four heavily armed men kicked down our door (this was about 11-11.30pm) and wanted my eldest sister but Dad said no and so they took him. I remember that very vividly. They killed a woman that had a baby on her back but her child survived. My mum took us and fled with the other women and we went into a part that was well hidden by overgrown grass and trees. We were stuck not knowing whether Dad was coming back in the morning or not.
The soldiers [came] and fought [the rebels]. There were lots of guns going off and I could hear them from the ground we were laying on keeping quiet.
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“I lived in the era of Nelson Mandela”

English: Young Nelson Mandela. This photo date...

Nelson Mandela. 1937. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I lived in the era of Nelson Mandela”.

That statement is something I can tell my grandchildren; and they in turn will say to their grandchildren, “My grandfather was alive in the days of Nelson Mandela”.

A person of that calibre does not pass this way every century.

I’d like to share the following article written by Roger Cohen that appeared in the

New York Times 8 July 2013.

Dreaming of Mandela

By ROGER COHEN

LONDON — The South African living for my family was easy. The staff changed the nappies. The houseboys brought the braziers to the right glow for the braai. Two gardeners were employed, one for the roses and one for the rest. When dinner ended the bell was rung, either by hand or by pressure of the foot on a buzzer beneath the carpet. A black servant would appear dressed in a white outfit.

My grandfather, Laurie Adler, and his friends donned their whites for Sunday lunch, preceded by a cocktail of “gin and two” (one third gin, one third Cinzano Bianco, one third Cinzano Rosso and “and full to the brim with ice”), before ambling off to play bowls.

At picnics on Table Mountain, a beret on his head, socks pulled up almost to his knee, Laurie would plunge a knife into the pale green watermelons, making a series of incisions before, with a flourish, allowing the succulent fruit to fall open in oozing red bloom. We feasted and left a trail of eggshells and bitten-out watermelon rind.

And on Robben Island, without watch or clock, Mandela maps time on the wall of his cell.

A particularity of the apartheid system was that blacks were kept at a distance except in the most intimate of settings, the home. They cooked and cleared away; they washed and darned and dusted; and they coddled white children. After the Shabbat meal on Friday night guests might leave some small token of appreciation on the kitchen counter (“Shame, I don’t have much change”) or slip a few rand into a calloused black hand.

Elsewhere lay the Africa of the Africans — the natives as they were often called — the distant townships of dust and dirt where water was drawn from a communal spigot, and homes consisted of a single room, and clothes were patched together from scraps of passed-down fabric, and the alleys were full of the stale stench of urine. I could smell the hardship in the sweat of the houseboys and see it in the yellowish tint of their eyes.

And on Robben Island, Mandela records on a South African Tourism desk calendar the humiliations inflicted by white prison warders.

A relative told me his first political memory from the early 1950s was of a great tide of black walkers streaming from Alexandra township — “like the Jews leaving Egypt,” he said, but of course no liberation awaited. The blacks were protesting against a one-penny hike in bus fares. Moenie worry nie, Laurie always insisted — don’t worry. He had been born in South Africa in 1899, my grandmother Flossie in 1900. They should know.

South Africa was as good a place as any for a Jew to live in the 20th century. A friend of the family let slip a sentiment widely felt but seldom articulated: “Thank God for the blacks. If not for them it would be us.” Jews on the whole kept their heads down; better just to keep stumm. Flossie voted for Helen Suzman’s anti-apartheid Progressive Party and then prayed the National Party remained in power. She was not alone in such genteel hypocrisy.

And on Robben Island, Mandela cultivates not hatred — that would be too easy for the whites — but the power of patience and perseverance.

The blacks were a form of protection. If you are busy persecuting tens of millions of blacks you do not have much time left over for tens of thousands of Jews. For South African Jews, aware of the corpse-filled ditches of the Europe they had fled, the knowledge of the 69 blacks cut down at Sharpeville in 1960 was discomfiting. But this was not genocide, after all. Most, with conspicuous exceptions (more proportionately among Jews than any other white South Africans), looked away.

Why think of a black man in a cell for his just beliefs when you could gaze at the canopy of purple-blue jacaranda blossom over the avenues of Johannesburg? Everything seemed untroubled, unless you caught a glimpse of ragged black men being herded into police vans. Then a cousin might say, “I suppose they don’t have their passes. Enjoy the swimming pools, next year they will be red with blood.”

And on Robben Island, Mandela learns that not even a life sentence can condemn a man to abandon the mastery of his soul.

I have been dreaming of Mandela. An old idea: He who touches one human being touches all humanity. I have been murmuring his name: He broke the cycle of conflict by placing the future above the past, humanity above vengeance.

He reminded us of what is most precious in Jewish ethics: What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man — or, as the Mosaic book says many times, you are to treat the stranger well for “you were a stranger in a strange land.” Repair the world. Be a light unto nations.

The truth is we did not deserve him. We could not even imagine him. But, as I learned young in South Africa, the human spirit can avert even inevitable catastrophe.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 9, 2013, in The International Herald Tribune.