As Euphoria Fades, South African Jews Sound Mixture of Optimism and Worries

The sense of euphoria that enveloped South Africa’s Jewish community in the aftermath of the country’s first all-race elections seems to have disappeared.

Eight months after President Nelson Mandela became the first black president in what once was an apartheid society, Jews here are expressing diverse views.

While some continue to sound upbeat, many more speak of an uncertain economy, a drop in educational standards, increasing crime and continued unemployment.

Many voice concerns for the country’s future stability.

Amid a host of dire predictions and genuine concerns for the country’s future course, the most optimistic views were put forward by Seymour Kopelowitz, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

“I am upbeat for 1995,” he said. “We had a marvelous year starting with the election and the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela. With the confidence which the economy is generating, I look forward to continued growth and development in South Africa – and that is good news for Jews.”

Citing the latest demographic study, which put the country’s Jewish population at about 105,000, Kopelowitz said he believed that emigration patterns among Jews, many of whom had left South Africa before the elections, had stabilized over the past year.

He pointed to an analysis of Jewish day school enrollments that indicated there was an increase in the number of Jews returning to the country.

“As the political environment stabilizes, so one can expect continuing patterns of stability” within the Jewish community, he said.

Kopelowitz said he believed that relations between blacks and Jews in South Africa were a model for the rest of the world. He also did not predict any major tensions between Jews and blacks, some of whom have moved into white neighborhoods from which they were previously excluded.

Joan Lurie, a personnel manager for a large public company, shared much of Kopelowitz’s optimism.

“The walls built by apartheid are slowly coming down,” she said. “Integration is starting to happen. There are mixed racial suburbs, which are proving to be harmonious, dynamic environments.”

At the same time, however, she said Jews were continuing to leave the country because of high levels of violence and crime. She said the greatest challenges facing South Africa include building the economy and equipping people with skills to enable them to attain a minimum standard of living.

“Unless we can do this, with all the political will in the world, we will not succeed,” she said.

Harold Rudolph, a former Johannesburg mayor who is a professor of constitutional law at the University of the Witwatersrand, said Jews were leaving South Africa because of crime, affirmative action and concerns for the future.

At the same time Jews are leaving, others are returning, he said. He said he knew of Jews returning to the country in small numbers from Canada, Israel and Australia.

Rudolph felt there had been little economic change since the April elections, but he expressed hope for the coming year.

Generally, he said, “some things have gone better than expected, others have gone worse.”

He noted a decline in political violence, but cautioned that such violence could return.

“The message of reconciliation by President Mandela has done much to lower tension in the country. But expectations of blacks of an immediate improvement in their living standards have not yet been met,” he said.

Irene Green, a businesswoman and mother of three, feared that limited economic development was turning South Africa into a Third World country.

She predicted that South African Jewry would follow the pattern set by the Jewish community in neighboring Zimbabwe, where a shift to majority black rule led to a gradual lowering of living standards among Jews. Most Jews eventually emigrated.

Green said she is not worried that blacks have moved into her neighborhood, even right next door. “There has been no hint of anti-Semitism, the children have befriended my children, but there does seem to be a cultural difference,” she said.

Steven Adler, an insurance broker and prominent communal leader, said he believed that Jews were still leaving South Africa for several reasons.

“They fear for their security and the security of their families and feel there is no future for their children,” he said.

“They also fear that, sometime in the future, with integrated schools, the level of education will drop for a temporary period, and they do not want their children or grandchildren to be educated in this society.”

Adler shares the view of others who believe the country’s economy is in trouble.

“At this stage, things have not changed much. But if there has been a change, it has been negative in that the cost of living has escalated tremendously,” he said.

Nanette Pack, an executive secretary, also spoke of deteriorating economic conditions and the hostility some of her neighbors feel for blacks.

With her local town council opposed to the integration of blacks and their representation on the council, she said she doubted if blacks would willingly move into a neighborhood where they would not be welcomed.

Pack also painted a gloomy economic picture and expressed concern over the “almost uncontrollable” crime rate.

Looking toward 1995, Pack said the road ahead would be a long, hard struggle requiring compromise by all South Africans.

“But I believe, with a concerted effort, it can be achieved,” she said.

NEXT STORY