Behind the Headlines: South African Jews Are Nervous but Hopeful As Elections Approach

South African Jews face the country’s first democratic elections on April 27 with a mixture of fear and faith in the future.

The fears among the approximately 100,000 members of the South African Jewish community primarily relate to the widespread increase in criminal violence, particularly in Johannesburg, where over half the country’s Jews live.

The Jewish community here has also reacted with sharp concern to recent politically related violence and, to a lesser extent, to the economic uncertainty facing the country.

Only a few years ago, the Jewish community here numbered 120,000, but many have since emigrated and settled in such countries as Israel, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Were it not for the recent influx of several thousand Israelis, the community would be even smaller.

Jewish political and communal leaders interviewed acknowledge the fears but remain cautiously optimistic about the future.

“The Jewish community is currently ‘holding its breath’to see if the historic election next month will produce a stable democracy,” said South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

“Despite the violent African National Congress-Zulu conflict and the threat of white rightwing extremism, the two major parties — the ANC and the Nationalists — have negotiated an acceptable way” into the future, he said.

NO SUCH THING AS A ‘JEWISH VOTE’

Harris and spokespersons across the political and communal spectrum share the view that there is no such thing as a “Jewish vote” that will substantially affect the outcome of the elections.

But the president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Gerald Leissner, said Jews are “likely to reflect the trends that would apply in the areas in which they live — urbanized communities which constitute the bulk of the Jewish community.”

Leissner, who was the victim of an armed car hijacking outside his Johannesburg home a few weeks ago, mentioned crime as the primary issue facing voters.

“The issue that concerns almost all individuals is the level of crime, which is becoming almost endemic in many of the residential suburbs where the community lives. It is hoped that a new legitimate government will be more successful in enforcing law and order,” he said.

Harris and Leissner, as well as the chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, Abe Abrahamson, said the Jewish community will vote center to left-of-center — with the likelihood that many will support the ruling National Party.

They also indicated there will be strong support for the left-of-center Democratic Party, which has some 10 percent of the seats in the present Parliament, and limited Jewish support for Nelson Mandela’s ANC.

The shared opinion of those interviewed is that the far-left Pan African Congress and the far-right Conservative Party will probably receive hardly any Jewish votes.

Abrahamson reported an increase in inquiries about making aliyah, much of which is largely due to the unsettled climate here.

Abrahamson, a Cabinet minister in the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, moved to South Africa for family and business reasons several years after Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980.

The South African Zionist Federation is “putting a greater effort into aliyah work,” he said, but he feels it is too soon to draw generalizations.

“We should not overreact. Jews have their own antennae, which are part of their historical experience and part of their genes,” he said.

“We will have to get over the hurdle. There is a whole new world opening with the elections. There will be plenty of opportunity and plenty of problems, both for the individual and for the country as a whole. But where aren’t there problems?” he said.

Ronnie Kasrils, former intelligence chief of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, and one of two Jews in the top 10 of the list of ANC national parliamentary candidates, said that “it is the black vote that will bring the ANC to power.”

The ANC does have the support and empathy of quite a number of whites, he said, “but this does not translate into votes.”

He attributes the nervousness of the white community to both fears and racism.

RACIAL PREJUDICE STILL PREVALENT

“Most whites in South Africa still have racial prejudices. They still have fears, although the situation has changed in practice,” Kasrils said.

He believes that when whites have an opportunity to see the record of the ANC, they will become more open-minded.

But he expressed bitter disappointment with the Jewish community.

“Most Jews are right-wing and not very tolerant,” Kasrils said. “They are not really moving with the times. I haven’t seen a positive or welcoming response, except from a few and I can count them on the fingers of my two hands.

“The Jews here are totally self-involved and narrow and don’t appreciate the aspirations of all the people of South Africa, ” he said.

Lester Fuchs, a member of Parliament whose Democratic Party has more Jews on its election lists than any other party, said he was well aware of the nervousness of South Africans as the elections approach. But he added that he found on the campaign trail a “prevailing enthusiasm among voters and in the Jewish community in particular.

“Jews can appreciate what freedom and liberation mean to people who have been deprived and discriminated against,” said Fuchs.

He said he was perturbed by the ongoing violence and by the release of many prisoners following a widespread amnesty.

“Law and order, as we know it, have all but broken down. One of the contributing factors is that the National Party and the ANC have colluded to empty our jails. This includes murderers and common criminals,” he said.

He voiced hope that the situation would improve drastically after the election and that the police under the new government would have the confidence and support of the general population.

Fuchs believes that despite current emigration trends, the Jewish community on the whole will opt to stay and contribute to making South Africa a peaceful and democratic country.

“The role of the Jewish community is very important in this regard. Jews can, as in the past, play a role out of all proportion to their numbers,” he said.

“Jews make up three-tenths of 1 percent of the general population of South Africa, yet the contribution they have made has been enormous — economically, in the arts, medicine, sport, culture and welfare,” he said.

“This goes to show that it is not the size of a community or the size of a political party which counts, but rather its determination to make things succeed.”

Issy Pinshaw, a member of Parliament representing the National Party said the Jewish community has an important stake in the outcome of current constitutional developments as well as in the impending election.

“As part of the broader community, the Jews here are going through a period of uncertainty with regard to the elections and the formation of a new government. They share the extreme concern about the prevailing violence and crime,” he said.

He believes one of the major causes of the violence is political, “as there is a power struggle, especially within the black communities and between the two major predominantly black political parties — the ANC and Inkatha,” which is led by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

He added that the situation will likely stabilize after the election. “South Africa cannot afford continued violence, as it hampers business confidence and foreign investment, which are two essential elements in the socioeconomic development of the country,” he said.

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