Jewish-led Party Takes Its Place As the Opposition in South Africa
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Jewish-led Party Takes Its Place As the Opposition in South Africa

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For the first time in the history of South Africa’s Parliament, a Jewish legislator will lead the opposition.

The final results from the nation’s second democratic elections indicate that the Democratic Party, led by Tony Leon, will replace the New National Party as the official opposition to the ruling African National Congress. The ANC won a landslide victory under President-elect Thabo Mbeki. Running closely behind the Democrats was Zulu Chief Dr. Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party.

An elated Leon said he was “thrilled with the results. We’ve done so well – – much better than our expectations and than in the 1994 elections.”

His party, which campaigned under the slogan, “The Guts to Fight Back,” obtained more than five times more votes than in 1994.

“We will now take the fight forward,” Leon added. “People voted for us because they are concerned about the ANC and want a strong opposition, which any decent democracy needs.”

The Democrats “overwhelmingly attracted the Jewish vote, because we stand where their concerns are — but it was not just Jewish people who voted for us,” Leon said, adding that his party had also attracted black and Indian voters.

Commenting on what it is like to be the first Jewish leader of an official opposition party in South Africa, Leon said, “It feels good. Being Jewish is part of me — but I neither make a fuss over it nor deny it.”

Leon said the New National Party had published scathing reports about him “because I am not a Christian,” but added that this did not affect voters, whom he described as “mature” and for whom a candidate’s “religion seems to be of secondary importance.”

At Leon’s side throughout the campaign was his Israeli fiancee, Michal Even- Zahav, whom he met when he visited Israel several years ago to attend a conference for Jewish legislators.

Even-Zahav and her two children, aged 14 and 12, will be settling in South Africa in August.

She betrayed her sympathy for Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak when she said last week, on the day South Africa’s elections were held, “We were lucky in the Israeli elections. I hope I have brought the luck with me.”

Leon’s brother, Peter, is leader of the Democrats in the Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria. As a result of the voting, the party will lead the opposition there as well.

“In a sense, we did get a lot of Jewish support,” said Peter Leon. “Tony resonates well in the Jewish community.

“In a country which is largely Christian, the fact that Tony is Jewish did not harm him. Jews in South Africa have never been as unthreatened as they are now.”

He added that South Africa’s Jews come from a “European liberal tradition and have always found apartheid abhorrent.

“There are many white ANC and Communist Party leaders who are Jewish. Jews have always been on the right side in the struggle to fight apartheid,” he said.

South Africa has between 80,000 and 90,000 Jews out of a total population of some 43 million. The approximately 45,000 Jews eligible to vote represent less than 1 percent of the total electorate.

Meanwhile, a Jewish member of Parliament from the ruling party claimed the election results indicated that President-elect Mbeki’s party had received significant support from Jewish voters.

“I think the election results say it all — especially the support we’ve received from Jews,” said Andrew Feinstein.

“There are a fair number of Jewish representatives who have been voted in through the ANC,” he said. “It is important that Jews engage with government and feel part of the changes in the country. The implications for the Jewish community are very good.”

Echoing the sentiment of Peter Leon that the country’s Jews have a proud record of fighting for democracy, Feinstein urged the Jewish community to “continue to put their shoulder to the wheel and become a full part of the process of reconstruction and development.”

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