Behind the Headlines: South African Jews Look to New Government with Hope and Dread
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Behind the Headlines: South African Jews Look to New Government with Hope and Dread

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The first democratic elections in South Africa in April 1994 brought about universal franchise, a black-led government and a peaceful revolution. People voted with their hearts — or fears.

Wednesday’s elections were different. People voted with their heads.

This was an election about future government and governance, rather than the heady emotion of transformation.

But the attitudes of Jewish voters were split: Some welcome the huge changes during the past five years, while others find that the problems outweigh the benefits.

The first group points to the peaceful revolution that has totally confounded the prophets of doom.

“If we think back five or six years, we would have branded anyone who said that in 1999 crime and corruption would be our major problems as an unrealistic optimist,” said a prominent member of the Jewish community. “But there has been no bloody revolution, no armed racial conflict. In fact, there has been a truly astounding degree of reconciliation.”

Others focus more on the threat posed by a violent crime rate that reaches into virtually every corner of society, including the Jewish community.

A significant number of Jews have emigrated and others are seriously considering doing so — mainly to the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

There are currently an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 Jews now living in the country.

But there was no renewed wave of emigration preceding Wednesday’s elections. Most adopted a wait-and-see attitude regarding the African National Congress government under Thabo Mbeki, who was expected to win the elections overwhelmingly. Official results will not be available until later this week. If Mbeki is declared the winner, he will be inaugurated as president on June 16.

Outgoing President Nelson Mandela astounded whites with his attitude of total forgiveness of past sins during the apartheid regime, but Jews fear Mbeki’s approach will not be as reconciliatory.

Russell Gaddin, chairman of the Gauteng council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the country’s Jewish umbrella organization, said Jews are nervous and uncertain about Mbeki because they don’t know enough about him.

“When I met him, I was struck by his strength. He is a born leader.

“We need to understand that, over the last five years, the government has undergone a tremendous learning curve. They have now got their priorities in line, and I am confident they will be able to deal with crime and the economy.”

Another priority of the new government may be improved relations with Israel.

With the South African elections following soon after Ehud Barak’s victory in the Israeli elections, Abe Abrahamson, honorary life president of the South African Zionist Federation, said the “Israel scenario has positive implications for relations between the two countries.

“The situation is now entirely different from what it was some weeks ago. I have confidence in the new Israeli prime minister to get the coalition for peace going.”

Relations between Israel and this country have been somewhat strained in post- apartheid South Africa because of the ANC’s strong ties with the Palestinians and Libya.

“The South African government is not anti-Israel, but feels that the Palestinians have to have their needs, as they understand them, met,” said Rabbi Norman Bernhard of Johannesburg’s Oxford Synagogue.

The Democratic Party, which appears to have been the most popular party with white English-speaking and Jewish citizens in this election, is hoping to replace the New National Party as the official opposition.

Even before election results were in, it was clear that its Jewish leader, Tony Leon, will continue to lead the Democratic Party on a national basis, while his brother, Peter, will maintain leadership of the party on a provincial level.

Many white voters expressed fear that the ANC would achieve a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, which would allow it to alter fundamental aspects of the constitution that protect minorities.

Peter Leon shares their concern and adds that if the constitution is altered, some professionals, including many Jews, would emigrate.

But, he added, “Other than Islamic fundamentalism in the Western Cape, there is more tolerance towards the Jewish community today than there was in the past.

ANC Parliament member Andrew Feinstein, who is likely to retain his seat, said the concern about the constitution was “a complete red herring.”

“People forget the ANC is not just a majority, but by far the most representative party in the country. All minorities are represented in it and there is therefore no reason why the rights of minorities should not continue,” he said.

Dina Saffer, national chairwoman of the South African Union of Jewish Students, said the greatest concern of students is the ANC’s affirmative action policy, which limits post-university employment opportunities for whites.

“It is seen as discrimination. Students generally talk about `when’ they are going, not `if.’ Though there are opportunities, here the vision of students is colored by affirmative action. They can’t see through — or past — it.”

Debbie Gordon, a 23-year-old medical student, believes the ANC government has been guilty of “reverse apartheid” by limiting university admissions and job placements for whites. She is also concerned about health care facilities and a lowering of standards.

“The ANC government is dealing with problems symptomatically, rather than treating the cause. They keep bringing up the past, rather than concentrating on the problems of today. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to deal with those.”

She believes there is no future for young people in South Africa, “especially considering that two students were held up at gunpoint in their cars during peak hour traffic last week — under the eyes of a traffic cop a few yards away.

“They should enforce law and order and bring back the death penalty,” she said.

Helen Heldenmuth, a producer of religious programs for television, was more optimistic.

“These elections were an incredible experience — so little violence, with voters showing respect and orderliness.

“I have every confidence in Mbeki. He represents the strong upper-class blacks emerging in this country. The crime was always horrific in the black townships, but whites are only noticing it more because it has spilled over into their areas and because there is no press censorship.”

She chastised pessimistic members of the Jewish community. “They lived in luxury long enough. It is now time for them to take part in the country and in building the nation,” she said.

In an election message to the Jewish community, Mbeki referred to the Jewish contribution to the country in all spheres of life — business, the professions, the arts, science, culture, education, sport, medicine and politics.

“The community’s positive outlook and efforts towards nation-building are indeed appreciated. For its contribution, as a minority community, far exceeds its numbers,” Mbeki said.

“We hope that your efforts in outreach and development will continue even more in the future as we embark, together with all citizens of South Africa, still further along the democratic road of peace and prosperity.”

(South African Jewish Report correspondent Paula Slier contributed to this report.)

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