South African Minister Reassures Jewish Community of Its Special Role

In what was described by a Jewish leader here as a “definitive” speech by a high-ranking member of the African National Congress, Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo recently offered his strong support for South Africa’s Jewish community.

In a speech presented at the 43rd South African Zionist Federation Conference that was held earlier this month, Nzo paid tribute to the “disproportionate” role Jewish South Africans have played in the transition from the country’s system of apartheid to one of full democracy.

“It is a fact that some of the outstanding leaders in the struggle to achieve racial justice in South Africa, as well as to help a political culture which emphasizes the overriding importance of human rights and civil liberties in a true democracy, have been of Jewish descent,” Nzo said.

In the wake of recent comments critical of Israel by another Cabinet member, Defense Minister Joe Modise, Nzo’s remarks provided Jewish leaders here with reason for optimism that the community will be well-regarded by the new government.

Although Nzo was overseas at the time, the speech was delivered on his behalf by South Africa’s ambassador to Israel, Malcolm Ferguson.

In the speech, Nzo also expressed support for the Jewish community’s Zionist fund-raising activities, noting that the South African government “views in a positive manner the involvement of South Africa’s Jewish community in worldwide Jewish efforts to support Zionist charitable giving.”

In a recent interview with Reuters, Modise compared Israeli policies toward Palestinians with the old apartheid regime.

“The things the Israelis did to the Palestinians were not very different from what South Africa did to its own inhabitants,” Modise said in the interview.

He also accused Israel of being the “biggest buster of sanctions, including the arms embargo.”

Israeli Ambassador Alon Liel said Nzo’s speech was a much better reflection of the state of relations between South Africa and Israel than the defense minister’s words.

“Modise’s statement was a surprise,” said Liel.

“Nzo’s speech was indicative of how we, at the embassy, hear things all the time,” he said.

Mervyn Smith, national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said he did not feel Nzo’s remarks were made to pacify an angry Jewish community.

“Nzo’s statements go beyond previous speeches, for they underscore, underline and accept the deep relationship between South African Jews, their Zionism and their relationship with the State of Israel,” Smith said.

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