It was Nelson Mandela’s first lesson in communism. Sitting in their shared office at law firm Witkin, Sidelsky & Eidelman, Mandela was handed a sandwich by fellow clerk Nat Bregman.
“He says ‘Nelson, hold the other side’,” recalled Mandela in an interview decades later.
“And he says, ‘Break’, so I broke; and he says, ‘Eat’, so he also started eating, and he says ‘Now that indicates what’s the philosophy of the Communist Party – we share everything that we have.’”
On Wednesday night, 60 years after the lesson, the man who Mandela described as his “first white friend” passed away from kidney failure.
He was 88.
A Lithuanian immigrant, Bregman arrived in South Africa as a four-year-old, speaking only Yiddish. Through a series of odd jobs, he put himself through university, where he studied law. In 1941 he began his articles with Witkin, Sidelsky & Eidelman, and shared an office with Mandela.
He invited the future president to his first “mixed parties”.
“There were separate lifts for white and black people in the building where they worked,” said Verne Harris, archivist of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
“Mandela would use the ‘black’ lifts and Nat would always ride with him.”
He was “bright, pleasant and thoughtful”, wrote Mandela in his biography Long Walk to Freedom: “He seemed entirely colour-blind and became my first white friend.”
When he was released from prison, Mandela invited his former colleague to dinner, and Bregman continued to visit him throughout the years that followed.
They last saw each other in August last year.
“He saw my dad and said ‘How’s things going, Natie?’ That’s what he called my dad – Natie,” remembered Bregman’s daughter Adina.
A conveyancing lawyer by day, Nat was a comedian by night.
He performed at an amateur theatre in Northcliff “and every barmitzvah and wedding, up on stage, telling jokes”, said Adina.
But in recent years Bregman battled with his health.
He died on Wednesday night in Milpark Hospital.
“He just faded away beautifully,” said his wife Rosa.
“It still feels like he’s here.”
Bregman is survived by Rosa, their six children, 16 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
He will be buried at West Park Cemetery at 11am on Sunday.