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Make Contact, Create Trust

Benjamin PogrundFilmed at Limmud Conference 2013

In my talk I share the lessons that I’ve learned from the quarter of a century I spent as a journalist in apartheid South Africa, from my life in Israel and from my 80 years.

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, my parents were from Lithuania. I hold four degrees from the universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand. I was with the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg for 26 years and pioneered reporting black politics and black existence under apartheid. I was jailed for refusing to disclose the source of information of a report; prosecuted over a period of four years after exposing abusive conditions in prisons; prosecuted for possessing “banned” newspapers; and denied a passport for five years. I was Southern African correspondent for the Sunday Times, London, the Boston Globe, and the Economist. Behind the scenes I worked to preserve documents of radical and underground movements and the records are in US university libraries.

I was deputy editor when the Rand Daily Mail was shut down in 1985 because of its opposition to apartheid. I emigrated to Britain and was chief foreign sub-editor of The Independent. After a year in Boston as editor of The WorldPaper, I emigrated to Israel in 1997 to found Yakar’s Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem, and spent 12 years fostering dialogue between Jews and Jews, Jews and Muslims, Jews and Christians, and Israelis and Palestinians.

I have written three books, about Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Nelson Mandela, and the Press under apartheid, and am co-editor of Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli dialogue.

My new book, Is Israel Apartheid? Reporting the Facts on Israel and South Africa, is being published by Rowman & Littlefield, New York, in 2014.

My wife, Anne, is an artist and we live in Katamon, Jerusalem.

I turned 80 in May this year, so it’s been a time of ruminating about the past, and especially the quarter century that I spent as a journalist in apartheid South Africa. Not as an ordinary journalist, but one who pioneered the reporting of black politics in the mainstream press, and extended that to cover the totality of black existence. That meant I investigated and reported on all the evils and consequences of apartheid and later, as I was promoted as an executive, to directing investigations and writing editorials to damn apartheid and steering the newspaper’s policy to non-racism.

The overriding memory that I have is trust. People gave me information which could imperil their liberty, even their life. And the danger grew as South Africa became more authoritarian, they trusted me to use the information honestly and accurately and, in turn, I trusted them to give me the accurate and honest information I needed.

It doesn’t mean you have to be entirely simple-minded as I was at least once. I got to know a group of men from Malawi and I found them to be reliable and honest. When they told me that one of them had been beaten to death by the police, I actually persuaded my newspaper, and our lawyers, to get a exhumation order, and the body was dug up and the pathologist found not a mark on his body and instead they said it was a toss-up whether his heart, liver or lungs had collapsed. I don’t know why, but I wasn’t fired for that one.

There are a few times like that when people let me down. Usually it was a mistake or it was the work of government agents trying to cause trouble. The one out-rightly deliberate time was by an ex-prisoner, he happened to be Jewish although that had nothing to do with it, he tried to betray me to the police. His boyfriend was in prison and he wanted him out and I was the price that had to be paid. I understood that and I didn’t mind. To give him his due, he set me up and then came to me and confessed what he had done.

I thought a lot about the many, many people I dealt with. Committed, brave, working to end apartheid without any thought of rewards of a big car or a fancy salary. But simply out of a belief in freedom. And I have been blessed by knowing remarkable people, many of whom became close personal friends. Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, who spent the last 18 years of his life in imprisonment of one sort or another, from solitary confinement for 6 years on Robben Island, to banishment in the town of Kimberly. The bond between us ignored the colour barrier. Ernie Vensil, a brilliant lawyer and my trusted friend, whose advice over years helped to keep me out of prison.

Both Bob and Ernie died young, a loss to South Africa and to me. And Nelson Mandela, who of course died this month, we knew each other for 55 years. When, long ago, he was working underground, and the entire police force was hunting him, and you’ve seen the phrase ‘Black Pimpernel’, I was a young reporter and we regularly met secretly and dangerously, so that he could tell me his plans. It was possible because there was a trust between us.

There are so many others. Many names are not widely known, like Robin Scott-Smith, he gave me information and asked me to not reveal his name, he trusted me and I went to prison when the police demanded his identity. And attorney Barney Zackon in Cape Town, who personified all that I have been talking about, because he opposed apartheid for the simple reason that he believed it was the right thing to do. And I remember Barney with a special affection because of his gravel-voiced Yiddish curses against apartheid.

I have often wondered, did I let others down. I tried not to but I cannot claim total success over the years. I have also tried to think why I led the life I did. Being Jewish was basis, the outlook I grew up with, through my parents, the values acquired in Habonim, and what I believed – imperfectly – to be Judaism. And it was sorely put to the test because, for many years, the Jewish establishment shunned me because of the work that I was doing and because I was a target for the government. And I had a look into myself and always believed that I was driven by the consciousness of being a Jew, with the added prod of awareness of the extermination of my family in Lithuania.

I actually found the report written by Jäger, SS-Standartenführer, recording the killing on 1st December 1941, in his words, 112 Jews, 627 Jewesses, 421 Jewish children, in Arbel, that was my father’s hometown. I have photographs of my uncles and aunts and cousins who were there, and the images are imprinted on my psyche. They are also part of my view of Israel as the haven for Jews.

Well, I have pondered the trust that each of us enjoys in our everyday lives, that a car driver lets us walk across the street with a green light and doesn’t try and run us down. That the milk we drink and the tin of fish that we buy and we eat are safe to eat. But this trust is enforced by law and I am thinking of a personal, voluntary trust that creates a bond between human beings. And that has taken me on to thinking that because of my own years long experience, a prime lesson which I brought from South Africa when I went on Aliyah some 16 years ago was a necessity for personal trust and acceptance of the other.

Out of this came the mantra, underpinning my dialogue work in Israel, as at Yakar in Jerusalem with the late Mickey Rosen, Rabbi Rosen, seeking to bring people together, and especially Israelis and Palestinians: “Make contact, create trust”. We must have that to achieve peace. Now, however, Jews and Palestinians on the West Bank have little contact, except as armed occupiers and oppressed occupied, the result is ignorance of each other, prejudice, fear and hatred. And the separation grows worse because each new generation knows even less about the other and is even more fearful and rejecting. It is impossible to go forward unless we overcome this, the leaders on both sides should be showing the way, but they do not, and instead only too often their words and deeds foster division.

It’s up to ordinary people to strive to make contact to put out the hand of friendship. Some do so, a few, and they need support. It’s a slow, slow process, with each contact a precious drop of water from the tap, this is the lesson I bring from apartheid, from my life in Israel, and my 80 years.
Thank you.

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