A few days after Donald Trump won the presidency, my father told me a story about his childhood.
My father grew up in Malmesbury, a rural farming town in South Africa’s Western Cape. His parents were Lithuanian immigrant Jews. Growing up Jewish in Malmesbury was not like growing up in Cape Town or Johannesburg, where Jews were more plentiful and more prosperous, and the surrounding whites were mostly of English descent. My father’s white neighbors, some of whom sent their children to school without shoes, were overwhelmingly Afrikaners. Many of my father’s classes were taught in Afrikaans. He spoke it fluently, I think. I can’t say for sure because when my sister and I were kids, my mother sometimes talked to him in Afrikaans so we would not understand. He always replied in English. I’ve never heard him speak the language in my entire life.
The story my father told is of being 16 years old in 1948, and hearing on the radio that D. F. Malan’s National Party had defeated the United Party of Prime Minister Jan Smuts. Smuts had been a towering figure in the South Africa of my father’s youth. Although an Afrikaner himself, and a veteran of his people’s struggle against Britain in the Boer War, he had gone on to serve in Britain’s imperial war cabinet during both world wars. He had helped found what became the Royal Air Force and played a critical role in Ireland’s birth as an independent nation. In Paris in 1919, he had helped negotiate the creation of the League of Nations. In San Francisco in 1945, he had helped draft the United Nations Charter. He had served as only the second non-British Lord Rector in the history of St. Andrews University in Scotland. (And would later serve as the first non-British Chancellor of Cambridge). He was so friendly with Gandhi that when the lawyer-activist left South Africa in 1914, he gave Smuts a pair of handcrafted sandals. (Smuts later wrote that, “I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man.”)