This week I visited South Africa on a lecture tour to three of its cities. It is not my first trip to South Africa since the end of apartheid. It’s my fifth. Still I never cease to marvel at the miracle of racial harmony that is this remarkable nation. In Cape Town you don’t feel it as much, seeing the white and black populations do not seem to be as integrated. But in Johannesburg and elsewhere it’s an incredible thing to see whites and blacks living and interacting together as if nothing had ever kept them apart.
The problems of post-apartheid South Africa are well-known and revolve principally around violence in its major cities. Homes in Johannesburg have a fortress-like quality to them and you cannot spot one that doesn’t have either barbed wire or, better, and electrified wiring atop a high stone wall. But all the residents agree the crime has subsided dramatically and the South African economy seems to growing a lot better than it is in the United States. While there are still some shanty towns, South Africa strikes one as modern, forward-looking, and upbeat. It is, quite simply, one of the finest places in the world to visit.
There are some obvious similarities between South Africa and Australia – where I visit so often seeing that my wife is from Sydney – which explains why tens of thousands of South African exiles chose to emigrate to Australia more than any other country. But the obvious difference is that for the most part Australia is a homogenous society of whites. True, there are many Asians and a scattering of Aboriginals in the big cities. But what you feel most in Australia – itself one of the most beautiful countries in the world – is a white country flourishing in its own self-contained continent. South Africa could not be more different. It’s a country of blacks with many whites. It has a large and thriving Islamic population and its Jewish community is vibrant, philanthropic, and well-established. It has all the flavor of Africa yet set in a first world economy. It has lessons to share with all the world about racial coexistence. I don’t live here. I am only on a guest. But here are some of the obvious lessons that come to mind the mind of a visitor.
1. South African blacks possess an incredible capacity for forgiveness. True, there is the occasional black demagogue who preaches prejudice and revenge against whites. But they are the tiny exception that proves the overall rule. The black leadership of South Africa is committed to total racial harmony and it’s impressive. And when you compare it to what’s going on next-door with their neighbor, the murderous dictator Robert Mugabe, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of whites and blacks, you get a good idea of how remarkable the South African black community is. When I visited Zimbabwe last year I saw a country paralyzed with fear. In South Africa I see a country flourishing amid cohesiveness and forgiveness.
2. It all comes down to leadership. Few would argue that Nelson Mandela is the most respected statesman alive. With good reason. The man is that rare human who somehow transcended what life did to him. In a world where so many emerge so utterly twisted by life’s complications – not to mention its tribulations – Mandela is a man utterly uncomplicated. In the simplicity of his convictions he inspired a nation to transcend its troubled history and move into a brighter future. The South African book stores are filled with his new best-seller which focuses on Mandela in his own words. If any American wants to know how the country must have viewed Washington while he was alive during revolutionary times, just come to South Africa. Mandela is a man revered. There is also the incredible fact of his having let go of power after a single term in office as President, an act that reminds this American of Washington surrendering his commission to Congress as soon as the revolutionary war was won.
3. Culture can unite people in ways that few other things can. Wherever you go in South Africa you feel the deep-ingrained African culture. True, it is a modern country and one cannot discount the qualities brought to this part of Africa by Europeans who gave it its modern hew. But none of that erases the deep feel of Africa that surrounds you at every turn. America, whose culture increasingly is that of fast-food, reality TV, and a salacious recording industry has much to learn from how South Africa has held on to an older culture that brings together young and old, black and white, religious and secular.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s newest book is ‘Honoring the Child Spirit: Learning and Inspiration from Our Children.’ Follow his trip to Africa on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.