CAPE TOWN (Jun. 23)
The head of the Jewish community in Swaziland, the last of Africa’s kingdoms, is a black South African who has not yet converted but already practices as a Jew.
Geoff Ramokgadi is fully versed in the rituals and tradition of the religion — he is largely self-taught since his decision to register for Orthodox conversion with the Johannesburg Beit Din 12 years ago — and succeeds in holding the 50-strong Swazi Jewish community together. He sports a kipah, speaks Hebrew and sprinkles his conversation liberally with Yiddish expressions.
At a recent conference of the African Jewish Congress, Swaziland’s prime minister, Barnabas Dlamini, said the country appreciates the contribution of its Jewish community.
“The Jewish community is small, numbering in the tens rather than hundreds, but over the years it has had quite an influence on the development of our country,” he said.
“The names Kirsh and Goldblatt will be remembered long after their time,” he said, referring to two well-known entrepreneurs.
The above-mentioned Kalman Goldblatt — who later changed his name to Kal Grant — arrived in Swaziland from Lithuania at the age of 17 some 70 years ago, and set about building his fortune through several trading stores and by developing the first townships in the country.
He owned a number of exotic cars, including a white Cadillac that had belonged to Elvis Presley.
When Goldblatt died, he was buried according to Jewish custom in a simple pine coffin. The Swazis, who go in for elaborate burials, were astounded that a man of such wealth should be buried in such a humble manner, and the story made the local newspaper under the headline, “Millionaire receives pauper’s burial.”
In earlier years, Jewish immigrants to Swaziland entered into liaisons with indigenous women. As a result, many Swazis today bear Jewish surnames.
Among them, a former Cabinet minister and a leading businessman both openly acknowledge their Jewish roots, with the latter donating money and time to Jewish projects in the country.
Israel and Swaziland generally have good relations, but there were some awkward moments at the recent African Jewish Congress conference held in the kingdom when members of the Swazi Jewish community expressed anger at Israel’s sudden closure of its embassy a few years back.
“Swaziland has kept diplomatic relations with Israel in good times and bad. You should have at least left someone here,” Ramokgadi said.
Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Tova Herzl, said that because of budgetary constraints there were no plans to re-open an embassy in the country, but that she hoped to present her credentials shortly and include the country in her bailiwick.