South Africa's Jews Uncertain Future:
With Mandela gone, crime, not politics, is causing many to consider leaving
By Todd Pitock
Five years ago, South Africa's first multi-racial elections sparked optimism within the Jewish community about the country's future, and there was even talk that some of the 40,000 Jews who had emigrated in the previous 20 years would return.
Nelson Mandela, the 27-year political prisoner who led a politically bloodless transition from white minority rule to become the country's first black president, stood outside a Cape Town synagogue and addressed the issue directly. "We want those who left because of insecurity to come back and to help us to build our country," Mandela said.
Such desires and hopes, though, have proven wishful, and the elation of '94 turned out to be shortlived. "You won't find a Jew here under 40 who hasn't at least seriously explored the idea of leaving," says Jonathan Fenster, a 32-year-old Johannesburg businessman.
But as South Africans headed to the polls in early June--Mandela was replaced by his top deputy, Thabo Mbeki--it was no longer politics giving rise to feelings of insecurity but violent crime, a serious problem that has only intensified since Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) was elected.
An extraordinary amount of carjacking, armed robbery, assault, rape, and murder have made South African urban areas cities virtually uninhabitable for most whites and turned its ethnically divided suburbs into affluent ghettoes patrolled by private security firms. Indeed, the situation in one suburb previously inhabited by a large number of religious, elderly, and poor Jews became so dire that the Jewish Board of Deputies, which looks after communal affairs, bought a hotel and moved residents wholesale to new, safer, quarters. New subdivisions are entirely surrounded by 10 foot high walls lined with razor-wire with single entry and exit points guarded by sentries. Within the high security environments, individual homes are likewise walled. The "crime situation" is as much a staple of South Africanconversation as the weather is in other places.
To the extent that there's a bright side, it's that Jews aren't targeted because they're Jews. "Things are difficult," says Marlene Bethlehem, chairperson of the Jewish Board of Deputies. "But crime is not anti-Jewish, per se. We're just part of the affluent community that's being targeted."
Corruption, inefficiency, and a volatile economy--in addition to crime--have given rise to fears of what Milton Shain, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town, calls "third worldism." "People are afraid they won't be able to continue living as they've become accustomed," he says.
The country's currency, the rand, has lost more than 10 percent of its value a year against the American dollar, so buying imports and traveling abroad is increasingly difficult and exposes South Africans to a different, but possibly more tangible, form of isolation than did apartheid-era sanctions. Within the country, inflation is officially about 10 percent, though many people allege the government figures underestimate the situation. The bank prime rate was recently 19 percent and had been as high as 25.5 percent. And job prospects for whites are not what they were because of an understandably active policy of affirmative action meant to right past wrongs and to give more blacks a stake in the middle class.
Paradoxically, despite all the problems, most South African Jews, like most whites, still live well. Like their counterparts in the United States, they've excelled in business, law, medicine, academia, and the print media. Because of a large pool of unskilled African workers, domestic servants are a given, and the ubiquity of private swimming pools, meticulously tended gardens, and even an occasional private tennis court attest to a lifestyle that's luxurious by Western middle class standards. That comfort may mitigate but does not remove a concurrently high level of stress, and because of the rapidly eroding currency, few can hope to maintain their lifestyle outside of South Africa.
The Jewish community's basic structure remains relatively intact, with about 200 organizations addressing everything from education of the young to care for the elderly. There is strong Jewish identity, little assimilation, and intermarriage is rare. Most children attend secular Jewish day schools, and support for Israel is passionate. Religiously, synagogue affiliation is almost exclusively Orthodox, and though not every household is strictly observant, there is a strong movement to return to tradition. It is, overall, one of the most tight-knit communities in the world.
But the emotional closeness is split by geographic distance, with an average of about 1,500 people leaving annually for Australia, North America, England, and Israel. Families are dispersed, and it is not unusual for parents to have children and grandchildren scattered from Toronto to Sydney. "Normally I should have seen my grandchildren growing up," says Hanns Saenger, the Board of Deputies' treasurer and honorary life president. Saenger's three children live in the United States and Holland. "I don't think they really understand who I am. They know I'm their grandfather but we don't have a relationship in the sense that we should have."
In the last three decades, the Jewish population has shrunk to about 80,000 native-born (plus about 12,000 Israelis) from a high of about 120,000 in the 1970s, according to Board figures. The population is concentrated in Johannesburg, the country's economic hub, which has just under 60,000, and Cape Town, the coastal city renowned for its beauty, which has 18,000. There are another 3,000 Jews in Durban, a predominantly Zulu and Indian city on the southeast coast, and 2,000 others scattered throughout the rest of the country.
Demographically, emigration has made the community disproportionately geriatric, with as much as a quarter of the community over age 65, compared to about 8 percent for whites overall. The younger generation isn't large enough to support the swollen ranks of the elderly and has not been able to make up for cuts in government subsidies, which have been re-allocated to make more equitable distributions across racial lines. In addition to the financial strain, the question of who will provide communal leadership in the future remains unanswered.
Although everything links to politics--and there is almost universal agreement that Mandela's greatest failure has been in the fight against crime--few Jews are worried about antisemitism.
"It just isn't an issue," says Shain, the Kaplan Centre director who is also the author of The Roots of Antisemitism in South Africa. The Board of Deputies' Saenger agrees: "It's a very ugly, but small pocket [of antisemities]."
Antisemitism, though, is not entirely absent. In the Cape Province, fundamentalist Muslims are a problem and are believed to be responsible for bombing a Cape Town synagogue in December, and anti-Israel protests, complete with flag burnings, have been staged. In Johannesburg, talk radio is popular, and one figure, an antisemite named Jon Qwelane, has caused concern. But so far at least, the talk program has not resulted in acts of hate, and even in the Cape, community officials say Muslim extremism is isolated. The threat that Jews once feared from white supremacists, represented by such groups as the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, whose emblem was reminiscent of the Nazi swastika has all but disappeared. Even so, as in many Diaspora communities since the bombings in Buenos Aires of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Jewish community headquarters in 1994, the Board of Deputies maintains community security patrols to guard synagogues and institutions.
Although they say they'd like to see warmer relations between South Africa and Israel, many Jews dismiss Mandela's embrace of people like Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat as irrelevant. Jews feature prominently in the ANC, among them Deputy Finance Minister Gill Marcus, deputy defense minister Ronnie Kasrils, and the late Communist Party leader turned housing minister Joe Slovo. Many apartheid-era political detainees were Jews, such as Raymond Suttner, an attorney who had the unfortunate distinction of serving more time in solitary confinement than any other inmate in South African history. Although those Jewish figures may give an exaggerated picture of the extent of Jewish involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, Jews came to be seen sympathetically by politically oriented black South Africans.
Like Mandela, Mbeki has had warm relationships with many Jews, including the chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, and other prominent members of the community.
Representing a minuscule percentage of the 40 million population, the "Jewish vote" is not meaningful. But Jews have made a significant economic and social contribution, and South African politicians know the country can ill afford to lose still more highly educated and skilled workers. Although it is difficult to verify, conventional wisdom in South Africa holds that when it comes to waves of emigration, the general white population has followed the lead of the Jews.
Officially at least, the community is sounding an optimistic note about post- Mandela South Africa. Mbeki, whose victory was a foregone conclusion, has actually been running the government for quite some time, with Mandela playing the role of elder statesman.
Though Mbeki sorely lacks Mandela's charisma, community officials say they're hopeful he will forcefully address the greater issue of crime. "After (the incidents with fundamentalist Muslims) in the Cape, he took a team down from Pretoria and put it in the national spotlight," notes Board chairperson Bethlehem. "Right away you had arrests. You'll see more of that. Is there a danger of him becoming a dictator or someone like [Zimbabwe president Robert] Mugabe? Our constitution will prevent that."
Anti-crime measures, though, will have to be stunningly effective to slow the flight of the country's Jews.
Asked if he had thoughts of leaving, one highly-placed community official answered on condition of anonymity: "My wife and I moved into our house five years ago and we haven't put up curtains," he said. "What does that tell you?"
Todd Pitock is a Philadelphia-based writer who spent three years in South Africa and is on the editorial board of Jewish Affairs, a quarterly that focuses on the country's Jewish community. His work has also appeared in the Jerusalem Report, the Forward, Tikkun, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and various national magazines.
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